[Photo: Hugo Glendinning]
Stunt-casting is a known offender in the theatre world. The 2012 revival of Evita was derided for casting Ricky Martin as the male lead and the endlessly popular Chicago is famous for the array of celebrities who have thrown on their jazz shoes, from Melanie Griffith to Usher to Jerry Springer. Stunt-casting is a sure-fire boost of ticket sales, but some might argue that it is a sad reflection of the celebrity-obsessed world we live in today. Why are pop-stars and television presenters being employed instead of trained theatre actors? Chicago may be forgiven, due to the show’s biting take on celebrity culture, but generally stunt-casting is akin to choosing a Katie Price novel over A Tale of Two Cities. Celebrity casting rarely contributes to a show’s quality and, sadly, acclaimed musical Once is the latest to follow this trend.
Once is an adaptation of the 2006 film of the same name, a low-budget love story set on the streets of Dublin.
It follows an Irish busker and a Czech immigrant, known only as ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’, who meet and find kindred spirits in their love of music. It is a simple and affecting tale. The theatrical adaptation is similarly low-key with just one main set and all the music performed live on stage by the actors. The story is small, but the emotions are keenly felt and the music is both tender and uplifting.
For the final months of Once’s West End run, Ronan Keating takes the role of the Guy, delivering a surprisingly textured performance. The ex-Boyzone star excels in the quieter, more emotional moments, though he struggles with the comedic requirements of the role and lacks the gritty authenticity that Glen Hansard brought to the film. His singing is solid, but with his pop-star good looks, he’s not particularly convincing as an unappreciated down-and-out. All this aside, it can’t be denied that Keating has tackled the role with a surprisingly deft touch.
The problem here is the audience. It’s a strange situation where an audience has such a profound effect on the appreciation of a West End show, but Keating’s casting has provoked an unprecedented level of audience interaction. From his first appearance on stage there were shouts of “We love you, Ronan!” and the rest of the show was punctuated with cheers, whistles, choruses of “aaaah” and cackling laughter at the gentlest moments of humour. At one point, Keating’s character removes his trousers, which prompts a frenzy of cheers from the audience.It felt like A Night with Ronan Keating, rather than the warm-hearted musical it should be.
It’s not to say that the Ronan Keating fandom entirely ruined the show. His adept performance as the Guy was lifted by an outstanding turn from Jill Winternitz as the Girl. She delivers humour and warmth in the cutesy, kooky, lovable stranger role, along with excellent singing ability, and lends depth to the other half of this gentle love story. Their paired performances are elevated by a magnificent script from Tony Award-winning playwright Enda Walsh. In a smaller venue, without the celebrity hysteria, this could have been an extremely affecting show. As it stands, the story seemed a bit small for the West End.
The producers of Once have undoubtedly hit ticket-sale gold with the casting of Ronan Keating, but perhaps should have resisted and preserved the low-key lovability of the original film. The welcome surprise of Keating’s nuanced performance was drowned out by the fan adulation that comes with him, which brings to light the question of stunt-casting – take note, theatrical producers – is it really worth it?
[Image courtesy of westendtheatre.com]
Once the Musical is playing at the Phoenix Theatre in London until March 21st 2015
For more details visit the Phoenix Theatre’s website