Saturday, 11 July 2015

Theatre review: The House of Mirrors and Hearts

The summer of new British musicals continues with The House of Mirrors and Hearts, an intimate, atmospheric chamber musical with more than a hint of The House of Bernarda Alba in its grief-stricken rooms. Eamonn O'Dwyer provides the songs, and co-writes the book with actor Rob Gilbert, for the story of Anna (Gillian Kirkpatrick) and her family. Her unseen husband custom-makes mirrors, until his sudden and somewhat mysterious death. It involves a broken mirror, so appropriately it's seven years later that we rejoin them. They've been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills, and the latest is Nathan (Jamie Muscato, a late addition to the cast after another actor had to withdraw,) who is researching a local obscure poet and distant ancestor of his. The family as he discovers them are still strangely dominated by their grief for Anna's lost husband.

So Anna is an unpredictable alcoholic, and her younger daughter Lily (Molly McGuire) is a sexually-precocious 15-year-old who quickly makes a pass at Nathan. He however is more interested in her withdrawn older sister Laura (Grace Rowe,) whose mother in some way seems to blame for her husband's death.

The House of Mirrors and Hearts is a quietly impressive musical, O'Dwyer's music is complex and full of interesting counterpoints, but although they're not foot-tapping Broadway belters there's a couple of deceptively hummable tunes like Anna's ode to being in a permanent alcoholic stupor, "Something for the Pain," and later on Nathan's climactic ballad "He Meant This." Ryan McBryde's production ramps up the claustrophobic tension on David Woodhead's multi-level set, in which the action only once strays outside the gloomy house (the lack of labels on any of the food or drink in the kitchen adds to the vague, menacing suggestion of a dark fairytale.)

McBryde's cast is for the most part strong, although to my ear Rowe sounded off-key in her songs. But there's a powerfully unhinged matriarch in Kirkpatrick (no wonder they've had a fair few lodgers if she randomly started screaming abuse at them all like she does to Nathan,) and palpable damage under Lily's slutty exterior from McGuire. Muscato's handsome interloper has a nerdy charm and there's also confident work from Charlotte and Sophie Pourret Wythe (alternating with Isabelle and Ella Doherty) as the younger versions of Lily and Laura.

Although the story nicely twists around, presenting itself in fragments - a lot of detailed work has gone into making both book and music echo the theme of broken mirrors - it's still the area of the play that needs the most work: David, the other lodger (Graham Bickley) is underwritten and feels a bit too much like a generic mystery man; and although the big reveal about exactly how the late father died is well-handled, it's a plot twist that feels overused. But there's no denying this is worth catching, and introduces another promising new musical-writing team to add to the one behind The Clockmaker's Daughter - and with the two duos working in completely different musical styles, I'd be happy to see both flourish in the coming years.

The House of Mirrors and Hearts by Eamonn O'Dwyer and Rob Gilbert is booking until the 1st of August at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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