Jamie Muscato as Nathan in The House of Mirrors and Broken Hearts
Jamie Muscato as Nathan in The House of Mirrors and Hearts
© Darren Bell

A young scholar, expert on a forgotten 18th century Persian poet, enters a house of mirrors and broken hearts and is waylaid by the dipsomaniac mother of two daughters, one a withdrawn neurotic, the other a raging nymphomaniac. There's another lodger, too, or is he a ghost…

Actually, you know exactly who he is within a few minutes of this laborious and faintly ludicrous new musical by Eamonn O'Dwyer, with some "book" input by Rob Gilbert and an indulgently slow production by Ryan McBryde.

The show started small, on the Edinburgh fringe, and has been work-shopped into a two-act musical melodrama that would seem way too long were it not for the stunning performance of Gillian Kirkpatrick as Anna, the mother, and the thawing relationship of Jamie Muscato as Nathan, the scholar, and Grace Rowe as the elder sister, Laura.

These two have a big "release" number, enacted by the light of a silvery lake, in which they chuck a bagful of Anna's empty bottles (mimed) at the musicians cowering at the back of the stage. Demons are expurgated, and Nathan suddenly realises that what the poet meant is what he now feels, or something like that. It's a very good song, the best in the show, and there's something like uplift in the final quintet, "Beauty in the Breaking."

O'Dwyer's score is no doubt expressing a lot of personal pain in a dysfunctional family close to home, and he does so in some long, limber lines of musical writing that remain stubbornly bereft of anything resembling a tune or even melody. Similarly, when Anna lets rip with her big drunk number, you wait in vain for anything clinchingly acidulous or hilarious that might have been done by Elaine Stritch.

Breakfast in this house involves jugs of Bloody Marys rather than boxes of Cheerios, and even Nathan, whose tattered texts are splashed in Anna's red wine, gets dragged into rituals of acrimony and point-scoring.

We are in search of a state of domestic stability and grace before father (good old Graham Bickley) – a glazier and mirror-maker– is cut up with another kind of non-drinking glass, and little Lily (a fearsomely confident Charlotte Pourret Wythe), who starts the show pirouetting in a pink tutu, swaps her ballet pumps for sluttish sexuality.

No it's not very nice at all, really, and the show does suffer from not establishing any sense of "Henry Jamesian" place beyond the house itself. Where, exactly, has Nathan come from, and why here? He seems an unlikely scholar, especially as the poet he's editing doesn't sound Persian at all; he's called Alexander Thornton Gray and is borrowed from Alexander Pope, Robert Burns and Thomas Gray.

Well, your guess is as good as mine. In the end, the musical is about small-minded, self-centred people, with a regulatory hint of child abuse, and only Anna has anything remotely appealing about her. Still, it's all done with a harrowing sense of conviction, and the valiant trio of musicians (led by musical director David Randall on piano) do what they can despite the bottle-throwing.

The House of Mirrors and Hearts runs at the Arcola Theatre until 1 August. For more information and to book tickets, click here.