Within five minutes of this new chamber musical, you'll probably guess the ending. And whilst that may make you feel intellectually superior for a moment, it leads to a disappointingly predictable and dissatisfying show.
More of a play told through music, the dark and twisted tone of The House of Mirrors and Hearts is a welcome antithesis to typical happy-go-lucky jazz hands musicals. It centres on a dysfunctional family, torn apart by grief after the death of the father - a mirror-maker. Anna (Gillian Kirkpatrick) depends on drink to cope, failing in her role as responsible mother to her two daughters: Lily grows from young ballerina (Charlotte Pourret Wythe) into slutty teenager (Molly McGuire); and Laura (Grace Rowe) is insular and isolated after some strange involvement with her father's death as a youngster (Sophie Pourret Wythe). They're joined by Nathan (Jamie Muscato) as a scholar researching a poet, and mysterious, ghostly "second lodger" David (Graham Bickley) who strangely never seems to fully interact with anyone... *clunk*.
The problem is that the plot poses more questions than it answers. The father's occupation is left as a vague metaphor hanging on the wall; we never understand the significance or purpose of Nathan's scholarly research; and the love story between him and Laura is quite frankly ridiculous. Book writers Eamonn O'Dwyer and Rob Gilbert have tried so hard to create dysfunction, they've failed to get to grips with their characters in a plot that meanders slowly and bizarrely towards its inevitable conclusion.
Somehow, it remains watchable - or should that be listenable - thanks to O'Dwyer's score. Just as the plot eludes comprehension, the music eludes melody. It works though: based on eerie, sinewy chromaticism and romantic, folk inflections, the music is beautifully haunting, with hypnotic textures that lure us into the narrative.
This kind of music is difficult to sing though, and the vocal performances here range from shrill to weak. Thankfully there's Muscato, whose rich tone heightens the music, whilst his acting is utterly believable even when the plot isn't. His love song in the second act, "He Meant This", is a musical highlight.
O'Dwyer should be commended for bringing something different to the musical stage. There's potential for a deliciously sinister show, but it's difficult to sympathise with such unlikeable characters bogged down in perpetual melancholy. At least predicting the ending early on allows you to wallow fully in their musical misery.
Watch: The House of Mirrors and Hearts runs at the Arcola Theatre until 1st August.
Photos: Darren Bell