Review: The House of Mirrors and Hearts, Arcola Theatre

“There’s beauty in the breaking of things”

Despite sounding like a lost novel by Gabriel García Márquez, The House of Mirror and Hearts is actually something a lot closer to home, although no less rare, an original British musical. Written by Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert with music and lyrics by O’Dwyer too, it is the tale of a household torn apart by grief, where secrets have been held unspoken for nearly a decade, and resentments allowed to fester into toxic antipathy. The arrival of a nerdish lodger threatens to upset the fragile balance but it is far from clear if this will bring release to the Keanes or just another seven years bad luck and misery. 

Developed by Perfect Pitch and co-produced with Aria Entertainment, it is clear that much love and care has gone into nurturing this piece of musical theatre into life, in all its challenging, angular beauty. O’Dwyer’s score has a pleasingly complex bent to it – those who judge musicals by their instant hummability will be left (mistakenly) disappointed – full of intensely unexpected harmonies and contrapuntal melodic lines that demand rapt attention and richly reward relistens (head to the Arcola’s website where 8 of the songs can be heard) – the music emerges as a thing of a jagged beauty.

And such a confrontational score makes sense in light of the story. Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Anna seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle, her eldest daughter Laura has retreated into near-mute reproach in Grace Rowe’s sensitive performance, and her youngest Lily – a forthright Molly McGuire – is brashly acting out and lashing out at anyone around her. The presence of others in their home slowly forces them to confront the way that they’ve come to treat each other since a terrible event in their past but even Jamie Muscato’s charming haplessness struggles to unlock years of severe emotional repression.

O’Dwyer and Gilbert show a nifty gift for drip-feeding information throughout the narrative so that the noir-ish feel of Ryan McBryde’s production is certainly well-earned, mirrored echoes of past and present haunt each scene to make it visually rich. Kirkpatrick is a staunch if occasionally amusingly sloshed central presence, reaching for some of the more extreme musical moments with real aplomb, Rowe and McGuire are achingly beautiful in both voice and performance as the struggling sisters and as their younger selves, Charlotte and Sophie Pourret-Wythe handle the not-inconsiderable demands of the roles with great professionalism.

Following on from the extraordinary success of The Clockmaker’s DaughterThe House of Mirrors and Hearts feels like another reason to celebrate the depth of new musical theatre writing in the UK. A decidedly more contemporary approach to the form to be sure, but one which is well worth the investment of time and attention.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 1st August 

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