Saturday, 13 May 2017

The things we do for love… Paper Hearts, Upstairs at The Gatehouse, Highgate

“I’m not as brave as the words I write… somewhere there are words waiting for me…”

And sometimes these words are wrapped up in glorious tunes, sang and played by a cast in intoxicating union, staring the audience straight in the eye with the sheer joy of connection and performance: a remarkable sight and one that made you wish for a strap so you could carry a cello round like Eleanor Toms, who also acts and sings as she plays.

Make no mistake this is amongst the most fiercely multi-tasking plays in history as almost everyone does at least three things, plays at least two roles and blows your socks off. It’s all you can do to smile back but some cried, others danced and many more just wished they knew the words…

Words are important to us; they are how we define the world and understand it and ourselves. “To write a story is to give away your heart… the bravest thing you can do…” says the lead character of Liam O'Rafferty’s appropriately honest and (paper) heart-felt debut musical about second chances.

O'Rafferty had never written a musical before and it shows: his performers do things they’re not supposed to, breaking the fourth wall, changing characters in waves as the narrative interweaves in fascinating ways and moving as they play: even drummer Ben Boskovic gets to move as the ensemble make like a band in thrilling fashion.

By making new rules Paper Hearts won vast acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe and has now transferred to London before a stint in Hamburg: if there’s any justice we’ll be seeing a lot more of it and this fearlessly youthful cast.

In the audience was Graham Gouldman, one of the greatest songwriters in British pop history – penning hits for The Hollies, Yardbirds and many more when he was still a teenager and 10CC were almost a decade away – and I’m sure he recognised this spirit: no one told him how to write Bus Stop or Evil Hearted You either.

The minute you entered Anna Driftmier’s impressively designed set you just knew that a corner of high-class Highgate had been taken over by an alternate reality in which bookshops are managed by soft-hearted scouse managers (Matthew Atkins) and populated by frustrated writers called Atticus (Adam Small, who is actually, quite tall…) who bang away for years on a typewriter in search of their truth.

Atticus is entangled in a relationship/hostage situation with brassy Alex (Sinead Wall, who has some pipes on her!) who long ago lost interest in both him and the novel he is attempting to write about tragic lovers in 1940s Stalinist Russia. Yanna (also Sinead) and Isaak (also Matthew… there’ll be alot of this) are two star-crossed lovers – the book is called Angel Star after the Pole Star which triangulates with their love no matter where they are in a country torn apart by Stalin and the war.

There seems little relationship between the book and the bookshop-romance but all will become clear in time and I like the way O'Rafferty controls his narrative with the aid of Tania Azevedo’s superb, innovative direction.

In the nicest possible way, the audience is confronted from the start by its troubadour cast as Joel Benedict strolls, strums and sings his way towards the front row followed by Amy Gardyne, electric blue eyes twinkling as she plays the violin and sings and Alec White pounds his bass – all always, remarkably, thrillingly, in character! It is a band but a band that acts through an emotive soundscape expertly anchored by musical director Daniel Jarvis on keyboards.

Likeable (and Alex...) as the bookshop team is, it’s clear they’re stuck in an emotional holding pattern but their uncomfortable stasis is soon to be rocked as Norman reveals the shop is being taken over by acquisitive digital retailers, Literally Books who will be sending someone to assess the viability of the old-school shop.

The night before, Atticus drowning his various sorrows in a bar, enjoys a marvellous flirtation with a very pretty girl (Gabriella Margulies, so dynamic and another with astonishing vocal strength) who seems to share his interests in quirky old films and art of importance. They quote lines from Brief Encounter and, all too soon it appears that their meeting will similarly be short and bitter sweet…

The next day the girl walks into the shop and it turns out that she is Lilly Sprocket (love these character names!) sent by Big Bad Books to assess and asset-strip the shop.

Meanwhile, back in the Russia of his book and indeed his dreams, Atticus withdraws more and more into his characters; the only people who understand him as he understands them…

The band on the move
But, and there’s always a but in such tales… Norman has A Plan: B*st*rd Books are running a competition for best young novelist and will award £50,000 to the winner! All is saved!! All that has to happen now if for Atticus to complete his work and perform it with sufficient conviction to win the prize and save the day. Only trouble is, the CEO of Lizardly Books is none other than his estranged father Roger (Alasdair Baker - the only cast member anywhere near my age with a lovely barritone).

So far so musical but the form is played with and teased out of all recognition and there’s a very satisfying coherence underpinning the narrative that ensures a conclusion worthy of the starling set up.

As the cast sang their final song and faced off against the front rows, the audience beamed back their smiles recognising that we too had taken part on the play: heart-warming and involving theatre that plucks the heart strings as easily as the band hits the high notes.

Recommended without reservation: great venue, good food and drink but most of all, as it’s a mood-altering injection of pure joy which comes entirely cynicism free!

Go see it and be prepared to smile uncontrollably for days afterwards!

Gabriella Margulies and Adam Small
BUT there's only a week to go - BOOK NOW!

2nd – 20th May 2017 Tuesday – Saturdays 7.30pm, Sundays at 4pm, Saturday Matinee at 3pm. No Monday performances. You can book tickets here and there's more details on the Paper Hearts website - including a song sample. Twitter: @paperheartsmus Facebook: /paperheartsmusical

Ithankyou rating: ****

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