Review: Paper Hearts (Upstairs at the Gatehouse) ****


Paper Hearts the Musical has seen various incarnations, playing at the 2016 Ed Fringe Festival and a sell out run at Waterloo East Theatre. The story continues, as the show returns off West End. Humorous, heartfelt and with a hugely talented cast, Liam O’Rafferty’s show takes a novel approach to storytelling.

Would-be writer Atticus Smith has always surrounded himself with books. So much so, in fact, that he works in a bookshop and lives above it too! While he immerses himself in their words and worlds, his girlfriend Alex wishes he had more involvement in their relationship. But when his world is threatened by Lilly Sprocket and and a big corporate buy out, could this be the end? Or is this just the beginning of another story…

Then there’s Isaak and Yanna in a war torn Russia. Though the winter grows colder, they begin to warm to one another. But each has a secret, which may freeze the other out. But that’s also another story altogether, quite literally the one which Atticus is writing!

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Gabriella Margulies (Lilly) and Adam Small (Atticus). Photo: Tim Hall.

Playing Upstairs at The Gatehouse, I went in expecting a traditional pub theatre set up: small and intimate. This space is anything but small. Surrounded on three sides by the audience, the set doubles as both Russia and the bookshop. As such, minimal set features: adorned with books and words, two blocks signify two levels. This allows the narrative to shift seamlessly: Atticus is able to write above, as we watch his creations come to life below. While the lighting works well in shining a spotlight on standout moments, it is overused. Fading after every song, it feels like this is signifying ‘It’s time to applaud!’ With a musical this good, any tuned in audience will be clapping anyway.

Jumping back and forth between the worlds, they overlap in interesting ways. Layered in each world is a rich narrative, relating to the other. A set of lovers, a looming figure, a lost boy. This reinforces the idea of escapism, but with reality always on the fringe. The writing is sharp, both in wit and emotionally. However, there are some points where the writing is a bit too sharp, playing for laughs than truth. ‘It’s You Not Me (Part 1)’ sees Atticus and Alex argue, and saying some absolutely vile things to one another. To do so this early on risks alienating the audience from this character. In the case of Alex, this is no doubt the intent. In the case of Atticus, this feels unnecessary. We also see him do this when he meets Lilly once again; repeated, it’s a trait bordering on sexism.

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The cast of Paper Hearts. Photo: Tim Hall.

O’Rafferty’s soundtrack is a joyful jaunt through the genres. Jumping from Russian folk dance to rock to Motown, these are all performed on stage by a live band who also play characters in both worlds. Particular highlights include the eponymous ‘Paper Hearts’ and ‘Shame On You’, the choreography for which is equally hilarious and impressive. I don’t think I’ve experienced a musical with this many reprises, with Part 1s, Part 2s and Revised numbers.

Adam Small is the adorably awkward Atticus. Small draws you into both of his stories, with his natural openness and sense of humour. Gabriella Marglies plays Lilly, a strong and satiric woman. Her chemistry with Atticus is on point, from the first meeting to their Book Off! Sinéad Wall plays Alex, a somewhat cruelly penned part though one she carries with gusto. She also doubles as Yanna in Russia, though you may not realise: Wall is transformed, the emotional heart of that story. Not just an Angel Star, she is a star. Alasdair Baker also pulls double duty, as book-shop owner Roger and Volga. While he plays the first for laughs, his portrayal of his counterpart is incredibly moving. The rest of the cast take on parts in both worlds. They do not simply play instruments; they are instrumental in creating the overall impression of the show.

Though off the beaten track, Paper Hearts proves why you should go off West End more often.

Paper Hearts plays Upstairs at The Gatehouse until 20th May 2017. For more information and to book tickets, visit


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