New British musicals are sadly all too infrequent these days, especially those not based on any pre-existing source material like a film or novel. This is precisely why I wanted to absolutely love The House of Mirrors and Hearts: it’s an entirely new book, score and plot written by Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert, which follows a family torn apart by death, alcohol and lies. Unfortunately, it left me slightly underwhelmed and really rather confused.
The biggest downfall of the show is its plot, as it combines every conceivable family problem into one show: death, alcoholism, the estranged daughter and ghosts (obviously). Alcoholic Anna is a grieving wife, adamant that her daughter Laura is to blame for the sudden death of her husband. While this should make for a gripping and intense show, it ends up being way too dragged out, seemingly sacrificing dramatic conflict for a longer run time. Reducing this musical to just a single act may have alleviated this problem – a lot of the action on stage feels unnecessary and as if it is just padding out the show to fit into the more traditional two acts.
The House of Mirrors and Hearts’s book also seems slightly confused, suffering from over-explanation in certain places and under-explanation in others. I left feeling somewhat unsure about what exactly happened to the father and the family in the end – a total contrast to the beginning of Act I, where it was almost too obvious that he had been killed. It also seems as if every single possible thing that could be wrong with a family has been thrown in, just for the sake of it, drawing focus away from the main issue of Anna’s husband’s death. The family’s problems at the end of the show are then resolved all too quickly, not giving the audience a chance to build up a connection with the characters or particularly care when their situations improve.
While at moments it shows real promise and originality, the music in this show is a mixed bag. ‘Something For The Pain’ is a clear stand-out, giving the marvellous Gillian Kirkpatrick the chance to show off her impressive vocal range, and offering the audience a slight relief from the bleak and repetitive nature of the bulk of the score. ‘He Meant This’ is also an endearing declaration of love performed exquisitely by Jamie Muscato. Aside from this, the majority of the rest of the score seems lacklustre with predictable rhymes and uncomfortably dissonant melodies. The idea to use mirroring patterns on the piano to form the backing is certainly interesting, but after hearing it constantly for two hours it becomes almost boring and loses the originality the idea started out with.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, and there are elements of the show that I really enjoyed. Ryan McBryde’s direction is excellent and really utilises the Arcola’s intimate Studio 1 space – even including a small band tucked away at the back of the set. David Woodhead’s stage design is similarly inspiring, featuring two levels that help to place the audience deep inside the unhappy home in which the musical is set. Also excellent is the cast of this show. Not a weak link is in sight, and neither vocal or acting talent has been favoured over the other.
The show has some potential, but ultimately seems unsustainable in its current imagining. The House of Mirrors and Hearts is certainly an interesting watch, but not one that I’ll be wanting to visit again and again.
The House of Mirrors and Hearts is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 1 August. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Darren Bell.