SURPRISE: I still blog! Totally didn’t accidentally not post anything for a whole month just there. MOVING ON. Today on The Paper Alchemist, I’m reviewing one of my most anticipated reads of the year!
Seventeen-year-old Hope is happiest out of the spotlight, working backstage at her local theatre, so she can’t believe her luck when she lands a top internship on a major new production. However, with a Hollywood star in the lead and his young understudy upstaging Hope’s heart, it seems unlikely that her life is going to stick to the script.
Hope has to prove she’s got what it takes. But with a big secret and so much buzz around the show, she’s soon struggling to keep her cool…
Theatres are places of terrific dichotomy, where an elegant, even plush front of house usually gives way to a backstage of cramped spaces, utilitarian corridors, and bustling crew. This labyrinth of the personal and professional shimmers with storytelling possibility. Fortunately for young adult fiction fans like me, Maggie Harcourt is interested in the behind the scenes of things. 2017’s Unconventional is an access-all-areas pass to a frantic scramble of lanyards, pineapples and emergency errands, set against a backdrop of meeting rooms, cavernous convention venues and teen friendship. Contemporary standalone Theatrical dives behind the curtain at a theatre, but begins in a draughty rehearsal space, with a production still in an unpolished state.
The legs paddling furiously beneath the surface to keep the swan afloat in this case include skilled deputy stage manager Amy, restrained assistant director Nina, and big-shot actor-director Rick. Exuberant makeup and wardrobe intern George provides Hope with a bit of teenage company backstage, though family takes something of a backseat as Hope tries to keep her internship a secret from her chilly older sisters and harried parents – including her costume designer mother, Miriam, whose reputation threatens to overshadow Hope’s determination to prove herself.
Hope is a Bridget Jones-style heroine who regularly tunes out of important conversations and is somehow late to everything, but she’s likeable and driven (“They knew everything about what was going on in the theatre and everyone in it… like it was part of them and they were part of it and you couldn’t separate them. Like they belonged there. And listening to them, I suddenly couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else”). Quiet love interest Luke is not the play’s lead – that’s fictional Hollywood heartthrob Tommy Knight, with whom Hope also has an interesting relationship – but a hardworking understudy. Their romance is sweet and slow-building, with a handful of sweepingly romantic scenes (“It’s a goodbye, and a hello; an I know you and I don’t and I want to know you“).
Starry yet grounded, I have been waiting for a YA book that takes on theatre as warmly as this. I had a few minor qualms: one unnecessary trope, a few forgettable characters, Hope’s formative theatre the Square Globe being mentioned but rarely seen, the first half occasionally feeling agonisingly slow, and repetition of the blueness of the love interest’s eyes, which to be fair, is also a characteristic of Kiersten White’s The Chaos of Stars, a book I really enjoyed. And there’s so much to enjoy about Theatrical. Harcourt’s writing has moments of absolute seamlessness. The second half of the book is pacy and dramatic. Genuine love for the theatre and its world spills from the page. There are even cameos, the most obvious being that the play at the heart of Theatrical is a stage adaptation of Unconventional’s book-within-a-book, Piecekeepers. I’m a big fan of its little details, from superstitions (never say the last line of the play in dress rehearsal) to chapter divisions and act titles (“Act One, Scene One”; “Audition”). I’d read a sequel – and will certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for Harcourt’s next project.
For fans of Sophia Bennett and Stephanie Perkins, this book makes behind the scenes seem like the place to be. Theatrical is intelligent, satisfying and full of detail, and will sweep you off your feet.