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March 15, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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By Ros Gardner
Directed by Mark Ingram
Gryphon Theatre until 10 March

What is a fairytale? Is it a morality tale? A coming-of-age story? The memory of an idyllic youth? These are the ideas that are played with in Once…, a self-described “Grimm tale for grown-ups”. Ultimately, fairytales could be any of these things, but never, the play cries, are they simple entertainment.

Well known playwright Ros Gardner’s script is a semi-linear narrative that tells the story of Pol, an old woman coming to terms with her age by retelling, and analyzing, the stories of her youth. The script plays effectively with the idea of history being a series of stories. “All these story lines,” Pol says, studying her aged face in the mirror, “and I’ve lost the plot.” Pol represents the fear that many hold about their old age. Suddenly in the mythical “tomorrow” of her life, she struggles to understand what happened to her life and in her life, to bring her to the point at which she finds herself. Pol is aided in her search for meaning by the characters that populate any good fairytale. Beast is her companion, the person that she resists until the very end when she learns to see past her youthful desire. The Hero – usually referred to as The Dud – represents these youthful desires – and what can go wrong when, as Beast warns her, you get what you want.

On almost every count, Once… is an extremely impressive work. The cast is very talented, particularly Phil Brown as Beast. Helena Easton should also be credited for her ability to play a woman easily 60 years her senior, and to move smoothly from playing an old woman to a young girl and back again. Stylistically, Once… uses a simple stage setting to great effect, using all available stage space to evoke changes of time and setting.

Although bracketed by enjoyable opening and closing sequences, the middle 20 minutes or so of Once… fails to engage. This is where more direct scripting and direction would be valuable – as Pol crawls ever deeper into her regressive odyssey, it is often difficult for the audience to contextualise what they see on stage. This becomes even more frustrating in her scenes with Jeremy Pickford, playing The Dud/Hero, which don’t really become clear until the final moments of a lengthy sequence. Still, it’s fun playing spot-the-fairytale-reference (I picked Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, to name a few) and in the end, Once… hits a deep enough thought-provoking nerve to make it a satisfying theatre-going experience.

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