The House of Mirrors and Hearts** (Arcola Theatre)

Posted: July 8, 2015 in Theatre

house of mirrors..,The rise of original British chamber musicals has been one of the most encouraging features of theatre in recent times. Apartment 40c showed enormous promise and The Clockmaker’s Daughter was simply wonderful, making this latest addition to the trend eagerly anticipated. However, the line between success and failure is a very thin one and the fervent wish to hail another triumph has to be countered by the need to be honest. Rob Gilbert and Eamonn O’Dwyer’s attempt to explore the darker side of human nature through musical theatre is bold, but their decision to shape their book in the form of old-fashioned melodrama rather than modern realism is perhaps their big mistake. Yes, melodrama has often been fertile territory for musicals in the past, but not where the underlying psychological themes are as deep as here. The house of the title is that of a mirror maker, whose mysterious death in his workshop is witnessed only by his older daughter, Laura. Flash forward several years and the teenage Laura (Grace Rowe) is withdrawn and refusing to reveal what she saw, her younger sister, 15-year-old Lily (Molly McGuire), is unruly and slutty and their mother Anna (Gillian Kirkpatrick) is an aggressive drunk. Their home is shaken up by the arrival of the studious young academic Nathan as a lodger; Anna and Lily compete to bed him, whilst he has eyes only for the retiring Laura. Jamie Muscato has little to do in the role of Nathan except for looking uncomfortable and Graham Bickley has even less to do as David, another lodger who has a habit of disappearing in the middle of conversations. The opening half hour moves slowly, but then the show springs to life when Anna extols the glories of the bottle, singing Something for the Pain whilst drinking herself unconscious. This is all that a song in a musical needs to be – stirring, witty, character-developing – and Kirkpatrick, giving it everything she has, gets the ovation that she deserves. However, it sets the bar high and every other number in the show struggles to match it. There is an overriding bitterness in O’Dwyer’s music, which, although suiting the show’s main themes, makes many of the songs very difficult to listen to. Only the recurring Secrets and Lies has a strong melody; otherwise, the score is lacking in contrasts. There are opportunities to introduce variations – when Laura and Nathan escape the oppression of the house, they hurl bottles into a lake, symbolising the removal of their shackles, but the music does not rise to match their carefree euphoria. Nathan is researching the life and works of an early romantic poet and O’Dwyer styles some of his lyrics as if they are taken directly from the poet’s work; this device makes songs seem stilted, when what they really need to be doing is expressing the characters’ own emotions. David Woodhead’s two-level set does a pretty good job of suggesting a neglected old house, but the awkward larger space at the Arcola presents challenges for a set designer and there is at least one key incident in the show that would not be visible from some positions in the audience. This is a musical without dance and Ryan McBryde directs a sombre, steadily paced production. With the one exception mentioned, the songs are the show’s biggest disappointment, doing little to develop characters or plot. They leave the story exposed and, as is always the risk with melodrama, it often often comes across as full of holes, rather ridiculous and trivialising issues that should be of profound concern. The show concludes with a denouement that is obvious from scene one and a “twist” that had been well-signalled an hour earlier. This is a work that can be applauded for its ambition, but it falls some way short of achieving its full potential.

Performance date: 7 July 2015

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