Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Paper Hearts is a touching, unique but slightly too ambitious portrayal of love, literature and 1940s Russia. The musical premiered at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was met with 5-star reviews, and has since been elongated into a two-act play with seven new songs.
The Gatehouse is a fairly small, intimate venue situated above a historic pub in Highgate, North London. When the audience enters the theatre space, they see a small open stage area in which a young man works on a typewriter, seemingly oblivious to them. There is a backdrop of red, there are red ladders and a raised platform to incorporate levels for the storytelling, red stools and piles upon piles of books.
The production tells the tale of Atticus Smith (Adam Small), a talented young writer who spends his days working on his novel about Stalinist Russia on an old typewriter whilst ignoring his real life, job and girlfriend. The story of Atticus’s life and the lives of his characters in Russia intertwine throughout the show, and we see both narratives unfold until they each reach a simultaneous happy (if sickly-sweet and fairly rushed) ending. The “musical within a musical” theme works well and actors from both storylines interact well together, but it does seem that the Russian plotline is perhaps a little more fleshed out than that of Atticus’s real life.
The scene changes between the modern-day “Final Chapter” bookshop and the setting of the protagonist’s novel pose a significant challenge, but it is actually very believable. The two parallel worlds, the lighting arrangement and incorporation of Russian folk music effectively set the scene, and the red backdrop is a clever touch, signifying 1940s communist Russia, violence and love. The show incorporates live music, including a range of folk and pop, to tell its story. Some of the lyrics are a little uninspired, but most of the songs are catchy and feature excellent instrumental scores. All the actors have incredible voices, but unfortunately the combination of microphones, a live band and the singers belting out their words becomes a little too loud and painful at times, considering the size of the venue and the audience sitting so close to the action.
Last night there were a few technical issues and the ambience of the room may not have been quite what the actors wanted it to be, but when it did work it worked very well and there was no denying that this is a talented cast. Matthew Atkins who played Norman and Isaak, especially stands out for his vocal performance, but there are no weak singers in this show. One gets the impression that the Paper Hearts cast wanted to be on a West End stage and they performed as if they were. The problem is that when one is so close to the players all of their movements are magnified; this means that the dance moves, which would have been fine if the audience had been seated a little further back, seemed quite basic. The actors made very good use of their space, but they didn’t quite seem to accept it fully. Sometimes in smaller venues less is indeed more.
Photo: Tim Hall Photography
Paper Hearts is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse from 2nd until 20th of May, for further information or to book here.
Read our interview with the writer and composer of Paper Hearts, Liam O’Rafferty, here.
Watch the Paper Hearts 2017 Showcase here: