“What would Barbara Cartland do?”
After a successful run in Edinburgh last summer and ahead of a tour in Germany this coming summer, new British musical Paper Hearts arrives in Highgate at the always charming Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre. Written and composed by Liam O’Rafferty, it is a boldly conceived piece for a debut musical and one which takes an ambitiously fresh spin on the rom-com genre.
Set in The Final Chapter, an independent bookshop with a devoted local clientele, Atticus Smith splits his time between working in the shop and being a frustrated writer. But when an online retail giant threatens to swallow the business whole, he is finally spurred into action, not least by the fact that his estranged father is behind the takeover, but also by the arrival of attractive management consultant Lilly Sprockett.
Paper Hearts’ twist comes with the way that this contemporary narrative is interspersed with scenes from Atticus’ novel-in-progress about Russia on the verge of WWII. As historical romance and tragedy plays out at the same time as modern-day shenanigans (there’s romantic entanglements aplenty here!), the parallel worlds feed into each other as fictional characters start to give advice and real-world events inspire new plot dynamics in his book.
Performed by a strong actor-musician company, Tania Azevedo’s production is at its best when it is at its most romantic. Choreography from Lindsay McAllister is perfectly utilised, evoking something of Once the Musical as cellists and guitarists waltz with their instruments as Adam Small’s nerdish Atticus and Gabriella Margulies’ spirited Lilly have a gorgeous meet-cute, and as their love-hate relationship develops, it is easy to fall for these guys.
The Russian-based scenes are also improbably engaging, helped in no small part by vibrant work from Sinéad Wall (what a voice!) and Matthew Atkins as protagonists Yanna and Isaak, who aren’t averse to popping up in the modern day too. And just to add to that, they’re also double-cast as contemporary characters too! O’Rafferty’s score pulls in a wide range of influences throughout the show but the Slavic folk inflections that accompany this work are particularly well-judged.
You could point out how credibility does have to be stretched here and there but we’re in the world of the rom-com here and so to labour the point is to miss it. It’s love and laughter, romance and reunions, a lot of feel-good fun. Crucially though, it’s also a supremely confident piece of musical theatre, O’Rafferty knows how to construct a tune (the title track is most memorable) but he also knows how to tell a story with it too, and the duet between Lilly and Yanna early in the second act is one of the loveliest things I’ve heard this year.