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BWW Review: PAPER HEARTS, Upstairs At The Gatehouse


Even the toughest heart of stone will turn into a paper one with Liam O'Rafferty's first musical. Born out of a pure love for bookshops and literature, Paper Hearts is the writer's first attempt at musical theatre. After winning over audiences in 2016 during Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a 75-minute version, the show has now grown in a two-act, fully developed, heartwarming and uplifting piece of theatre directed by Tania Azevedo.

Young, aspiring writer Atticus Smith's world is about to be turned upside down. The Final Chapter, the store he works in as an assistant, is due to be taken over by a large internet company and he's only one who can save it. Set between his day-to-day rut and a 1940s Russia inhabited by his own characters, the show is a love letter to writing, books and nourishing a passion.

Adam Small plays lovable bookworm Atticus Smith, who lives and breathes literature, while he tries to finish Angel Star, his epic historical romance set in a Russia on the verge of the Second World War. His father's neglect has instilled in him the notion that he's not good enough to write nor he will ever make him proud, and the resulting insecurity and doubt makes him delay finishing his book. Small's delivery is heart-wrenching, and he makes Atticus' wit and spot-on irony shine through. The actor's ownership of the character is clear and complete, having followed its creation from the very beginning at EdFringe.

To help Atticus and raise his spirits is father figure Norman (owner of The Final Chapter), played by Matthew Atkins, who also embodies Angel Star's protagonist Isaak. Atkins' bookseller is as delicate as his Russian counterpart in Atticus' book is resolute. Strong in his Britishness, Norman can't help but pull the umpteenth smile out of the audience with his predisposition to prepare a cup of tea to help solve any situation. Atkins, who also plays the second violin in multiple songs in the show, exhibits great versatility in his two roles and single-handedly drives the narrative forward.

Girlfriend Alex and new manager Lilly, played by Sinéad Wall and Gabriella Margulies, are tenacious and explosive in their interactions. Marguliers brings tears to the eyes as she recalls how reading at a young age could make her travel and meet new friends, from the Mad Hatter to The Hungry Caterpillar, in her solo "The Places I Could Go".

Azevedo has her orchestra included in the action instead of placing them in a corner. The incorporation of musical instruments, played by the actors/musicians, adds an enjoyable element to the stage. The band (Eleanor Toms at the cello, Amy Gardyne at the violin, Ben Boskovic at the percussions, and Alec White at the bass) are also the real ensemble of the show: they hide their instruments in large boxes according to Lindsay McAllister's choreography, which is dynamic and compelling, also assimilating books into it.

The production's double-casting is particularly interesting: Alex doubles as Yanna, while Roger Smith (Alasdair Baker), the protagonist's father, is also Volga, a ruthless Russian officer and once a friend of Isaak's. These parallels draw attention to how the main character's perception of the people around him is projected into his work of art and how he processes his life; and the action of writing, and therefore art, is also used by the team as a method to work through one's heartbreak.

Anna Driftmier's set design is meticulously detailed and she is able to carry the audience directly into a dusty old bookshop. Piles of books, boxes, crates and a ladder play with the romantic aesthetic of the store, conveying its decay, and the vibe provided by the stacks of pre-loved books crowd the stage with their friendly presence.

"Who wants to go back to reality?" muses Atticus during the show, and Liam O'Rafferty and Daniel Jarvis make sure their audience is left with the same question. Their music and lyrics are warm and full of zest, infused with hints of contemporary pop-folk and nuances of jazz and rock, making the score vivacious and catchy. "Words", "Prologue" and "Brief Encounter" (both parts) stand out as highlights in the first act with their beautifully written and inspiring lyrics, matched in the second by "Give Back Her Heart" and the memorably lovely finale "Paper Hearts".

"To write a story is to give away your heart - that's the bravest thing you could do" the characters recollect, and it is safe to say that O'Rafferty and the company have certainly given away theirs. Paper Hearts is a musical full of inspiration and positivity surrounded by a profound love for books and writing.

Paper Hearts runs at Upstairs At The Gatehouse until 20 May.

Photo credit: Tim Hall

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