Currently playing in Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Paper Hearts is the brainchild of Liam O’Rafferty and is a brand new British musical that celebrates writing and books. It premièred at Waterloo East Theatre, followed by a run at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe with a string of rave reviews, and will soon embark on a tour to Hamburg.
It tells two stories in tandem: the first of Atticus, an aspiring young writer who is struggling to finish his first novel, and the second of Isaac and Jana, the protagonists in his novel that’s set in Stalinist Russia. During the day, Atticus works in Final Chapter, however it’s about to be taken over by online book chain Literally Books. In a bid to save the shop, and motivate Atticus, Norman (the owner) enters him into the Young Writer of the Year competition – winning this would give Atticus a chance to publish his novel, as well as earn him a £50,000 cash prize that could help keep the shop open. Initially reluctant, as his estranged father would be the one judging his work, Atticus eventually agrees and takes some inspiration from his own life (including his relationship with his father and the introduction of the mysterious Lilly into his life). However, finding out more about Lilly leaves him in turmoil, and he has to find a way of working through this in order to finish his book.
With a folk-inspired pop soundtrack (composed by writer Liam O’Rafferty) and Atticus finding himself talking to his characters, wishing he could live in their world, it’s almost like Once meets Midnight in Paris. The music is vibrant and catchy, played by actor-musicians under the guidance of MD Daniel Jarvis on keys. There is occasionally an issue with volume, as solo vocal lines get drowned out by the instruments, but there is no such problem when the ensemble come together with some stunning harmonies.
Whilst some parts are a little twee for my taste (such as Lilly singing to the books as she remembers her childhood), there’s no denying that the idea as a whole is a strong one – and the dual storyline idea allows for a bit of give and take, showing the source of Atticus’ inspiration and adding some variety, all the while keeping the story flowing. As a book lover myself, it’s wonderful to see a show that celebrates this onstage.
Anna Driftmier’s black, red & white colour scheme makes a simple set striking. Made up largely of books and boxes, it immediately transports you to the bookshop and prepares you for a couple of hours of delving into the world of stories. The stools that look like typewriter keys are also a very cute touch.
Adam Small easily steals the show as Atticus, showing his passion for literature and his vocation as a writer – though he also has very human flaws, for example an automatic prejudice against employees of Literally Books (Shame on You, a sassy Aretha Franklin-style number, pulls him up on this).
My verdict? “To write a story is to give away your heart” was what Atticus’ mother always used to say, and it proves to be true in the case of Paper Hearts – a new British musical worth writing home about.
Paper Hearts runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 20 May 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.