Next To Normal
Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Next to Normal won a Tony for best score in 2009 and a Pulitzer for Drama in 2010 and caused quite a stir when it opened on Broadway, partly because of its subject: mental illness—not an obvious subject for a musical. We have had to wait a long time for a London production, but director Michael Longhurst delivers a production that delivers two hours of vibrant theatre that is painful and funny, moving and inventive.
Diana is a woman who, at first, seems to be the driving force in her family, getting them all off in the morning: husband Dan, musician daughter Natalie and son Gabe, who seems to have a very special relationship with his mother, but we are hardly through the opening number before we sense something is wrong, has been for a long time. Whether giving us glimpses of the woman she used to be or worn down by the pill-popping regime to which she is subjected, Broadway star Caissie Levy gives a central performance full of passion and pathos.
Dan is a caring, devoted husband; Jamie Parker plays him beautifully. His well-meaning actions aren’t always the right ones, but he copes calmly even when Diana starts laying out sliced bread on the kitchen floor to make their sandwiches. The way we discover that quirky behaviour is just one of the detailed touches of Longhurst’s staging.
Jack Wolfe gives Gabe a remarkable rapport with his mother, but this is all a delusion. He isn’t there, only she sees him: he died as a baby 18 years ago, That trauma is perhaps a core cause of Diana’s condition.
With her father’s attention concentrated on her mother, Natalie lacks the back-up she needs to handle her own neuroses and Eleanor Worthington-Cox captures the way she protectively switches from warm-hearted young woman to protecting her own space, pushing away Jack Ofrecio’s Henry, despite the charm of this young man who declares that he loves her.
As her doctor (played by Trevor Dion Nicholas) progresses her treatment from pills to hospitalisation and electroconvulsive therapy, with subsequent effects on the memory, the story is told through a succession of more than thirty songs (plus reprises). It is sung beautifully with some rich blending of voices.
Next to Normal tells a harrowing story that elicits empathy. One can’t help but wonder how different it would be if this weren’t an affluent American family who must have comprehensive medical insurance, but this doesn’t set out to be a documentary coverage of such a condition and its treatment, it is an emotive drama withTom Kitt’s music following the natural cadences of Brian Yorkey’s lyrics so that they connect directly.
Next to Normal draws you into its drama and, with its imaginative staging (design by Chloe Lamford, Lee Curran’s lighting, Tal Rosner’s video projections) and quirky choreography, it is constantly inventive—you never know where someone might appear from!
Reviewer: Howard Loxton