Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Talented performers, a layered storyline and high production values makes Paper Hearts as good as anything you will see on the West End. Emotional depth, humour, and a well-crafted script make this a must-see for fans of musical theatre.
Atticus Smith is a writer who also works in a bookshop. After his girlfriend leaves him because he spends too much time working on his novel, he meets Lilly in a bar. Like any good musical, this is where the web starts to become tangled as she makes as a sharp exit. Things are complicated further when Atticus is informed that the bookshop is being bought out with the intention of closing it down – by the commercial chain owned by his absent father. Without providing spoilers, Atticus is then presented with an opportunity to save to the store – but of course there is a twist.
The first thing that strikes you about the show is the size of the cast on a small stage. Lead, ensemble and musicians total eleven, with at least half of the ensemble also playing instruments. The band is made up of keyboard, drums, guitar, bass guitar, cello, a percussion box, and a couple of violins. Songs are performed to perfection, both musically and vocally. The orchestral strings are complemented by heart-melting harmonies in folk-style songs that range from beautiful solo pieces to funny and high energy pop songs. The show-stopper is particularly beautiful, and was reverberating around my head for a long time after I left.
The story is told through a combination of dialogue and song, with ensemble switching effortlessly between roles. If there is one criticism of the script, it is that it is too short. The relationship between Atticus and his dad has the potential to be explored in a lot more depth, as the conclusion felt a little rushed. Other than this, Paper Hearts has all the emotional depth, twists and turns, and plot curves expected of a musical. The true genius of the script, however, is the way the plot is cleverly layered – told by both our lead characters, and the characters in Atticus’ book, Isaak and Yanna. They are on a quest to find Yanna’s brother in Stalin’s Russia, allowing the show to move between realities, and allowing both Atticus and Isaak to provide guidance to each other.
Performances are outstanding all around. Adam Small’s Atticus is determined and endearing, and Gabriella Margulies’ Lilly is both volatile and vulnerable in equal measure. It would be unfair to single out any of the remaining cast, because every performance was of the highest quality. Every high note was struck with precision, every harmony was beautiful, and every cast member slipped in and out of each of their roles like a glove. Choreography was phenomenal. Up to eleven high-energy performers on the stage at any time, each moving the set between scenes, and/or during songs, and not a single foot was out of place. Transition to and from each reality was often embedded within scenes, and was slick every time.
Importantly, the songs were both immediate and well constructed. Each song served a purpose, and was as strong lyrically as anything you will hear. From the solos of the lead characters to the traditional Russian wedding reception scene, these wonderfully-crafted songs were the vehicles for moving the storyline forward. They also provided some comedic moments, and fuelled the emotion behind the love story.
The greatest compliment I can make about the lighting arrangement is that I didn’t notice it. Scene and tonal changes were smooth, often incorporated at the end of songs, and the lighting state contributed to this.
I felt moved throughout the performance. The talent and energy of the performers hit me within the first few minutes, and I was gripped from start to finish. I found myself emotionally engaged with the characters, and the sheer zest of the cast made me think that they were in love with the script too. The audience was silently engaged throughout, not so much as a whisper from start to finish, and there was a small standing ovation at the end, although this was a minority rather than a majority of the audience. Lyrically, I found the songs speaking to me. Personally, I feel that the script should be extended to a full two-act musical, as there are a couple of plot lines that could be explored in more detail, and the quality of writing is such that I feel the writer, Liam O’Rafferty, could raise the already-high level of this show to that of the very best West End shows.
All the elements line up to make this an outstanding show, a real gem of the Fringe. It’s a must-see for any fans of musical theatre and anyone interested in contemporary writing.