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Photo credit @ Rosie Bowers

Feature: Once the Musical – in rehearsal

Lily Middleton takes a sneak-peak at rehearsals for the new production of Once the Musical, coming to The Barn Theatre this summer.

On a hot Thursday morning I battle through the throngs of hats and fascinators making their way to Ascot at Waterloo station, and head to a sticky rehearsal space near Elephant and Castle. Behind an innocuous door, magic is happening, and we’ve been invited in to see.

Once the Musical, based on the beautifully tender movie of 2007, started life Off Broadway in 2011 with immediate success on Broadway in 2012, before hopping across the Atlantic to Dublin and London. There’s little doubt of its success, with subsequent world tours and concert performances. And it’s a real treat to report that Once the Musical is back, being reimagined by director Dominic Shaw. This isn’t a restaging of the phenomenon; Dominic wants to add his own twist to the show and as soon as the cast launch into a rock influenced version of ‘Leave’ it’s pretty clear it’s going to be a success.

Anyone who’s seen Once will tell you that music is at the heart of the movie and the stage show. And what this production aims to do is take the music back to its roots, to the atmosphere you’d find in a dingy Dublin bar filled with locals. Dominic sees this version of the show as a rock and roll interpretation. Yes, there’s still an acoustic guitar and piano, but there’s also full drum kit and electric guitars. He wants us to imagine that it’s Coldplay or Ed Sheeran in a stadium show, rather than an acoustic session. It’s almost like watching an indie band rehearse, not a musical company (but probably a bit less smelly and boozy). It’s exciting to see a much-loved show and score given this injection of love and fresh energy.

Dominic wants this new production to be an “emotional shot in the arm”, and with a company of talented musicians and performers, they are all cooking up an amazingly unique musical journey for the much-loved characters of Guy and Girl. It’s a treat to witness it in action. It also sounds like it will be quite the spectacle, with the cast joking about just how many lighting cues have been requested, and Dominic wanting the audience to feel like they’re at a gig.

But don’t worry if you’re a big fan of the source material. The songs keep their integrity intact. The script is also untouched; something that Tomas Wolstenholme (Guy) and Sarah Moss (Girl), are quick to reassure – but they bring their own experiences to the roles. Tomas speaks of his striking personal links with the story, and how the emotions are real on stage and in the rehearsal room. When asked how they manage to control these emotions, and reflecting on the blubbering wreck I was after seeing the show years ago, they speak of how this is when the skill of their craft comes in. When to release, and when to control emotion. It’s a privilege to hear how they plan to bring these much-loved characters to life in their own way.

There’s no doubt of the passion oozing from everyone involved, whether it be Tomas finally creating his own ‘Guy’ after being an understudy for the role previously, or the musicians eagerly perfecting every note, every harmony, in between each run through. Dominic’s passion and ambition for the show is infectious, he wants this to be the Once we know and love but amplified. He’s being bold and brave, and it feels like the show I love is in safe hands.

Once the Musical is at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester from 3 July – 12 August 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.

About Lily Middleton

Lily currently works for a gardening magazine, so spends her days writing about plants. When not stretching her green fingers, she can be found in a theatre or obsessively crafting. Her love of theatre began with musicals as a child, Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria being her earliest memory of being completely entranced. She studied music at university and during this time worked on a few shows in the pit with her violin, notably Love Story (which made her cry more and more with each performance) and Calamity Jane (where the gunshot effects never failed to make her jump). But it was when working at Battersea Arts Centre at the start of her career that her eyes were opened to the breadth of theatre and the impact it can have. This solidified a life-long love of theatre, whether in the back of a pub, a disused warehouse or in the heart of the West End.