Thursday 24 August 2023

Theatre review: Next to Normal

Fifteen years after its Broadway debut Next to Normal gets its London premiere at the Donald and Margot Warehouse, and in many ways you can see why UK producers might have been wary of bringing it here for so long - and not just because it won the Pulitzer for drama, and should therefore automatically be treated with suspicion. It treads a fine line between the emotionally raw and the emotionally manipulative, and I'm still not sure which dominates overall; there's definitely moments that fall on one or other side of that line. Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) musical is certainly a bold take on mental health issues, as it introduces Diana (Caissie Levy,) her husband Dan (Jamie Parker,) and teenage children Gabe (Jack Wolfe) and Natalie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) as an almost exaggeratedly average family.

But when Diana makes sandwiches by throwing bread, cheese and lettuce around the floor and hoping for the best, Lee Curran’s lighting flickers and clues us into the fact that she’s in the middle of a manic episode. This family is dominated by her bipolar disorder, and it’s defined the very different ways she treats each of them – SPOILER ALERT from the next paragraph onwards.

Because, despite avoiding details about shows before I see them, I’d seen an article with a headline about people spoiling Next to Normal’s twist so I knew there was one. So I immediately spotted that nobody but Diana ever interacted with Gabe. Add to that the fact that they’re incredibly close and he always seems to tell her what she wants to hear, and I guessed that he wasn’t really there. Fortunately the show only really tries the misdirect for the first 25 or so minutes, at which point we start to get told about how Gabe died as a baby, and the 18-year-old version we see is one Diana’s imagination has painstakingly hallucinated growing up.

Meanwhile the real living daughter has been largely ignored, because her mother couldn’t stand the idea of emotionally investing so much again and losing her. Natalie’s own subplot sees the beginnings of a high school romance with Henry (Jack Ofrecio,) while Parker has one of the hardest jobs bringing to life the largely reactive Dan, whose personality has been pretty much absorbed into his attempts to keep some kind of family unity together. Trevor Dion Nicholas completes the cast as a series of doctors treating Diana, including the “scary rock star” psychiatrist who takes her through various courses of talking therapy, hypnotherapy, and eventually electroconvulsive treatment.

The strength of Kitt’s music and the cast’s powerful delivery of the songs, along with the sly sense of humour that Yorkey’s writing maintains even in the darkest moments, manages to avoid this tipping over into misery porn, but it’s a close-run thing: There’s a moment involving a babygrow that I thought was just pushing the audience’s buttons a step too far, and the second act starts to pile further misery on the characters in a way that starts to feel like they’re being checked off a list.

I was probably more acutely aware of this because I knew I had Vanessa sitting next to me, and just how many personal triggers for her the show seemed to be working its way through. She was far from the only member of the audibly sobbing audience who seemed to have been traumatised, although for all the people who like to get sniffy about trigger warnings I will say this: I’d made sure she read them so she was prepared, and while “enjoyed it” might be a bit of a strong term for her afterwards, she was full of more enthusiastic praise than for most shows.

It’s certainly a show that, for better or worse, speaks directly to those of us with mental health issues. I also appreciated the way the ending resists easy answers and accepts that these aren’t health problems that have, as yet, a neat solution – although I could have done with Yorkey finding a way to do it that was less Multiple Ending Syndrome (given the nature of the show an abrupt ending wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, so a number of moments feel like they’re about to be followed by a blackout.)

But I did think the story touched on all the ideas it needed to in the end – including the fact that, if Diana needs to let go of her grief for Gabe defining her, Dan needs to confront his own more. I can see this musical being one that can go very wrong, especially for a UK audience that doesn’t always go for the very American combination of bombast and earnestness, but Michael Longhurst’s production has navigated its pitfalls well (and has a set by Chloe Lamford that creates the impression of depth on a stage notoriously lacking it.) Levy is a powerful-voiced and sympathetic lead, and Wolfe has the standout musical moment with the rocky “I’m Alive,” which is the best example of how Diana’s angelically idealised creation is actually a symptom of something much darker. I still think there’s problematic elements about Next to Normal but Longhurst has managed to make them secondary to its strengths.

Next to Normal by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is booking until the 7th of October at the Donmar Warehouse (returns and rush tickets only.)

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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