Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 20 May 2017
Billed as the new British musical, Paper Hearts is on tour after rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. The show is now at Upstairs At The Gatehouse, a quaint theatre unsurprisingly above a pub called the Gatehouse in Highgate village, until 20th May 2017. Set almost entirely in a book store, this musical flits between writer Atticus’ real life and the lives of the Russian characters in the novel he is writing.
There were a lot of things to enjoy about this new musical. The use of a small cast- most of which were also very talented band members- was impressive, with seamless role changes and transitions from real world to book world. The choreography is clever, and the way in which the instruments and music dovetailed into the play highlighted they were just as integral to the piece as the script. The set is sparse, as expected in such a space, but the simple props which were chosen were used to good effect. The music was strong from the very beginning and there were a few songs which really demonstrated the cast’s vocal skills perfectly. If you are a bit of a book worm, you will enjoy the many literary references and the ‘book-off.’ There really were lots of very good constituent parts.
It feels a little mean, therefore, to say that where Paper Hearts unfortunately comes up short are the characters themselves. They feel a little two dimensional. Everyone is either good or bad, and where they have done questionable things there is a very good reason for it. Their relationships feel too simple and quite frankly a little cliché. I just about buy the ‘nerdy writer living life through his characters’ vibe, but cannot empathise with his pathos. He feels like a bit of a man child. The tension with Lily felt forced and the ending all too easy. I didn’t believe the relationships in the real world. Interestingly, however, the book world appeared much more nuanced and all the characters a bit more flawed and, thus, human. They have agency and motivation, not all of which are good, which drive their actions. They have purpose.
Paper hearts is carried by the music, with a few clear stand outs (It’s You, Not Me, and That Makes A Good Marriage Last! spring immediately to mind). It is at its heart a feel good play, with soaring numbers and a beautiful message; it is greater than the sum of its parts and a good way to spend an evening. It is a little clichéd in places, but then name me a musical that isn’t.