Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 13 July 2015

The House of Mirrors and Hearts

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 2nd July - 1st August 2015


Verity Healey

Occasionally, but only very occasionally, this new chamber musical by Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert erupts like a volcano, the earth cracking open to reveal the hot molten lava of feeling beneath.

But these moments are rare and there are problematic cracks in the story too. A mirror maker dies in his workshop in violent and mysterious circumstances. His untimely end has something to do with eldest daughter Laura. Zap forward some years and we find the mother spending her days in episodic fits of drunkenness, having swapped glasses of milk at bedtime for Bloody Marys for breakfast and motherly tenderness for sharp-edged neglect.

Laura is a silent stony pious mass of inner trauma, whilst younger sister Lily pirouettes from demi pointes to drunken attempted Pas De Deuxs with newly arrived lodger Nathan, a shy academic type who is obsessed with Persian poetry and intrigued by the family’s trauma and Laura’s terrible secret. It’s just unfortunate that Laura’s secret,  immediately glaringly obvious to the audience, takes him two weeks to uncover, when they have lived with it for seven years without so much of an inkling. In fact it is so obvious, it is hard not to cry out “it’s behind you” and throw a few tomatoes for Anna’s alcoholic breakfast smoothies for good measure.

It is also difficult to believe in the characterisation. A distinct lack of development means it’s hard to accept Anna’s unfounded sarcastic hatred of her daughters, which oscillates between a feigned love developed through similar passions (Anna and Lily’s drinking) and a tendency to bully that which appears weak, different or inferior (her behaviour towards Laura). It is hard to understand why Nathan chooses to stay. He is not coerced by Lily’s fiendish charms, nor is he drawn to David, the strange almost ghostly other lodger, who appears eerily like the haunting governess in The Turn of the Screw. Laura is the only one with any sense and the one with whom he wishes to step off into the sunshine, but her Cordelia like temperament, making her religiously boring although she has such a dark secret, makes her hard to empathise with.

And how to handle the abuse theme? It is so poorly worked out and plot heavy with no consideration given to how such a trauma decimates the human heart and eats up the spirit from within.  Some interest is piqued when it appears that there might be understanding and empathy for the abuser, but the idea slips away.

Time is also a problem. How should it be managed, both in a temporal and spiritual manner? The answer here is that time is barely managed at all. Once or twice, a few numbers ruminate at length on dramatic points: the mother’s wonderful paean to the joys of drinking to relieve pain is one, Nathan and Laura’s end duet as their love blossoms through ever revealing epiphanies is another, but more often, they feel uneven and under developed, neither seeming to grow out of the scenes, or comment on them or even actually be the scenes themselves.

It’s too much of a moral musical and a bit of a mish mash of other works. The Turn of the Screw draws upon the twelve note scheme, with a sense of Schoenberg just hovering on the horizon; here occasional bits of dissonance and tonality seems to pay lip service to this, but with no real meaning or force of expression behind it.

But there are at least some watchable and listenable to performances here: Charlotte Pourret Wythe as young Lily nearly steals the show with her natural assuredness, Gillian Kirkpatrick as the mother commands the stage and seems to dearly wish she could get her teeth into some far meatier numbers (and so do we). Jamie Muscato as Nathan is winning as the bespectacled boy next door type. Therefore it is even more of a shame that the show is muddled. The House of Mirrors and Hearts might be striving to be unconventional but unconventionality is not a euphemism for narrative short cuts or confused through-lines.


Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

The House of Mirrors and Hearts Show Info

Directed by Ryan McBryde

Cast includes Graham Bickley, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Molly McGuire, Jamie Muscato, Grace Rowe




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