Review: Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

You know in The BFG (stay with me) how he makes dreams for people by taking all the different elements and blending them together? Well, this is essentially what Liam O’Rafferty, Daniel Jarvis and Tania Azevedo have done in Paper Hearts. Musical? Check. Books? Check. Love story? Check. Folksy score performed live on stage by actor-musicians with gorgeous harmonies and catchy choruses? Check, check, check, check, check. Long story short – this is my dream show, and I’m a little bit in love.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

After proving a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the show’s been developed into a full-length musical set in The Final Chapter bookshop, where aspiring writer Atticus (Adam Small) is trying to finish his epic novel of romance and betrayal in Stalin’s Russia. When the shop’s threatened with closure at the hands of a large online retailer, Atticus finds himself with only one option – finish the novel in time for the upcoming young writers competition, win top prize, save the bookshop. Simple, right? Well no, actually, because his girlfriend (Sinéad Wall) could hardly be less supportive, he’s got history to work out with his dad (Alasdair Baker) and he’s just met a girl (Gabriella Margulies), who may just be his soulmate – but for one fairly major complication…

Fact and fiction are effortlessly interwoven as we slip into the snowy Russia of Atticus’ main characters Yanna and Isaak, and follow their story – which seems to bear some striking parallels to their creator’s own life. And as the characters develop, it becomes clear they’re shaping his destiny just as much as he is theirs.

Liam O’Rafferty was inspired to write Paper Hearts by his passion for bookshops, and the show overflows from the start with that love for the written word. From Anna Driftmier’s set – built largely from books, and full of delightful details like the floating book light (which is something I never knew I wanted until I saw it, and now it’s all I can think about) – to the brilliant “book-off” where Atticus and new shop manager Lilly challenge each other’s literary knowledge, it’s a thrill for anyone who loves to read.

The cast of actor-musicians are sensational and work seamlessly as an ensemble to bring the score to life. And what a score it is, taking in a range of genres but always feeling very natural, like it’s just a bunch of friends getting together to play – and did I mention the gorgeous harmonies? There are some really beautiful songs here, with two of many highlights the heart-wrenching duet Stand Up and the title number Paper Hearts, which closes the show on a soaring high.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Perhaps one of my favourite things about the show is, despite its frequent forays into Stalin’s Russia, how very British it is; you can totally imagine it on screen as a Richard Curtis rom-com in the vein of Notting Hill. The dusty old bookshop is quintessentially British, the script has a wry, self-deprecating humour – particularly from Matthew Atkins’ gloriously camp shop owner Norman – and when things go wrong, everyone’s immediate response is to put the kettle on. This gives the production a very cosy, homely feel, and makes the characters and everything that happens to them incredibly relatable.

The show does get a bit dark and tense at times (gun alert) and there’s no shortage of emotion either. But overall Paper Hearts is uplifting, heartwarming and basically just a joy from start to finish. It’s got everything you could want from a West End show at a fraction of the ticket price – so see it now before it gets snapped up for a transfer. And then go again, because it’s worth it.

Paper Hearts is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 20th May.

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