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Review: Once at Liverpool Empire ****

The Empire’s sweeping stage and cavernous auditorium is the natural habitat of all-singing, all-dancing, all-action musical extravaganzas.

So it’s perhaps not unreasonable to wonder whether an intimately-told tale of love and longing might find itself lost in such capacious environs.

But thanks to a simple but statuesquely-realised set, a large and crack ensemble of actor-musicians, and a story with huge heart, Once successfully swells to fill the space – and along the way delivers an evening’s entertainment that has bags of charm.

A Dublin busker (Daniel Healy) sings a searing song of heartache and prepares to give up playing forever until a cheerful Czech girl (Emma Lucia) throws him a curveball, forcing him confront his demons and reconsider his life choices – and her to make a painful personal decision in turn.

Healy, who returns to the Liverpool stage a decade after playing a young John Lennon at the Royal Court, and the very likeable Lucia together create a believable rapport and their duets are beautifully and tenderly realised, particularly the show’s best-known number, the Oscar-laden Falling Down.

Meanwhile there’s a clever use of the wider cast who wield guitars, accordion, cello and fiddles and melt in and out of the action with sinuous as well as some striking choreography; the hypnotic Irish folk instrumentation and the cast’s permanent presence on the sidelines reminiscent of Come From Away.

Above: The Once cast. Top: Emma Lucia (Girl) and Daniel Healy (Guy). Photos by Mark Senior

While the accomplished ensemble kicks up its heels in an energetic opening hooley, elsewhere the show is rather ballad heavy, the musical numbers composed by Glen Hansard (remember him as Outspan in The Commitments?) and Markéta Irglová, who played Guy and Girl in the original indie film on which the stage show is based, full of plaintive yearning.

While they don’t necessarily drive the narrative, they certainly complement it.

But despite a thread of melancholy which runs through the plot – boy loses girl, boy meets new girl, girl and boy fall for each other but circumstances gets in the way – playwright Enda Walsh’s keen script also offers hope and humanity, together with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments which are nicely delivered in this new touring production.

There’s a nifty and witty idea involving reverse Czech surtitles, while Dan Bottomley and Ellen Chivers have a lot of fun with their larger-than-life supporting characters, the wildly unpredictable Billy and feisty Reza respectively.

All taken together, it makes Once a winningly warm and engaging exploration of the human condition.

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