irector John Tiffany has seen his acclaimed stage adaptation of Once performed in many cities around the world, yet he insists the new production — which this week begins a seven-week run in Dublin’s Olympia — is special.
“I’ve told the cast that it’s like eating the best Mexican food all around the world and then you go to Mexico City,” he says.
“And that’s how it feels. That’s not to undermine any of those other productions. I loved them and they were brilliant. But, oh my God — you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
In actuality, this is second time round for Once in Ireland. In 2013 the Broadway production that had just guzzled up eight Tony Awards made a short pitstop in the Gaiety before going on a long run in London’s West End.
This new staging of the show, however, is brought to life by Landmark Productions, an ambitious Irish company that has flourished in recent years with productions of Misterman, Ballyturk, and The Walworth Farce.
The latter are all the work of Irish playwright Enda Walsh, of course, who also wrote the ‘book’ for Once. Everything that Landmark and Walsh have touched has turned to gold, so the expectations for Once are high indeed.
Significantly, it was Tiffany who recruited Walsh into the project when an adaptation of the film was first mooted in 2010.
One of the first things Tiffany and Walsh set out to do was get the blessing of Glen Hansard, who — alongside Markéta Irglová — had starred in John Carney’s film. (Hansard and Irglová won an Oscar for the sweeping duet, ‘Falling Slowly’.)
The story goes that Hansard took some persuading.
“Well Glen had never seen a musical before, apart from Spider-Man, because he is friends with Bono,” says Tiffany, breaking into a chuckle.
“Bono had taken Glen to see Spider-Man, and so Glen thought that that’s what we were going to do to Once. So it wasn’t necessarily that he needed persuading. He just needed ‘enlightening’.”
Duly enlightened, Hansard has since publicly expressed his happiness with the show. Indeed, when the musical ran in Los Angeles last year the Frames singer delighted the audience one night by joining the cast onstage for an impromptu singsong.
The man tasked with playing Hansard’s original part in the Olympia, meanwhile, is English actor Tom Parsons.
In fairness, it’s a task made easier by the fact that Parsons — a veteran of musicals like Mamma Mia and Jesus Christ Superstar — recently played the role in a Melbourne production.
Playing opposite him is Megan Riordan, an Irish-American actress who has been a fixture of Dublin theatre for the past decade. Riordan was living in Dublin when the film became a minor sensation back in 2007.
She watched it after her mother gave her a copy.
She says: “My mom was like, ‘This film’s very good and it’s set in Dublin. Watch it.’ I enjoyed that the film was unusually structured and that it was shot on the fly, on a shoestring budget. There was something very pure at the heart of it. And I love the way that the stage version has amplified that, making it more theatrical, with more characters and loads of humour.”
A singer and musician herself, Riordan is very taken with the songs.
“They’re really artful. They have so much heart and passion in them, and yet they’re not moany or earnest. And that’s the sweet spot for music. You have to be up there telling the truth and feeling the feelings but to do so in a way that isn’t cliché.”
Parsons — a singer-songwriter who grew up dreaming of performing at Glastonbury — describes the part as “a gift”.
He relishes the way the show allows the cast to deliver the songs each night as genuine musicians would; with plenty of scope for spontaneity.
This sense of live spontaneity also feeds into the now famous ‘pre-show’ routine, whereby the audience can go onstage and enjoy a brief session with the cast.
“The cast have learned 30 or so Irish and Czech folk songs, and so every night we play six or seven ‘pre-show’ songs from that repertoire,” Parsons explains.
“And that keeps it exciting. The set is a working bar, so the audience can come up and get a drink and be involved. That’s the brilliance of it. As an audience member you’re a part of this session onstage and then all of a sudden you’re in your seat and the show has started without you even realising it. So there’s never been a clear divide between the actor and the audience.”
If the latter is a lovely little conceit, it’s also indicative of the blend of intimacy and theatricality that define John Tiffany’s shows, from Black Watch through to Let the Right One In, making him one of the most feted directors working today.
Tiffany’s theatre rests everything upon absorbing the audience into the ‘live’ aspect of the show.
“The more everything gets digitalised, the more precious the live experience of going to the theatre is,” he says.
“We don’t even watch TV ‘live’ anymore; we just binge-watch it on Netflix — which I love doing, by the way. But I think the only way we’re going to harness the unique property of theatre is by really celebrating that fact that we’re ‘live’.”
Tiffany was this week confirmed as the director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — JK Rowling’s play which will premiere on the West End in 2016. The director has been beavering away on the project for 18 months but couldn’t talk about it.
“I’m just relieved that I can say the two words ‘Harry Potter’ in public and not get arrested,” he says. “It’s very, very exciting but I still can’t divulge anything about the plot.”
Before the inevitable tsunami of Pottermania sweeps him up next year, Tiffany can take refuge in the new production of Once. Its quirky guy-meets-girl plot is one which the public is by now very familiar with, yet it’s also one which— almost a decade on from the film — still casts quite a spell.