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Next to Normal at Donmar Warehouse

Often after watching an intense TV drama my wife will turn to me and say, “Have we got something funny to watch?”. Last night on my way home after watching Next To Normal, I texted her saying “Loved the show but have we got something funny”! It’s not that there aren’t any funny lines in the Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) musical, there are, but it’s a very intense and often harrowing piece of theatre where the main theme is how extreme grief can manifest itself in horrendous mental health issues that affect not only the person grieving but the people around them, especially their close family.

The company of Next to Normal - photo by Roy Baron.
The company of Next to Normal – photo by Roy Baron.

Next To Normal starts breezily enough as Diana (Cassie Levy) is getting her two teenage children, Gabe (Jack Wolfe) and Natalie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) ready for school and her husband Dan (Jamie Parker) is off to work. But it doesn’t take long for the audience to realise that all is not normal as Diana spirals downwards into depression and darkness which it seems nobody can help. She’s been grieving for seventeen years over the loss of a child whose memory she can’t let go of and it’s affecting her relationship with her family with her manic mood swings. She’s seeing a therapist who prescribes her a cocktail of pills which aren’t really working and at the beginning of the second act, she’s about to undergo drastic electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) which causes her severe memory loss and more trauma for the family.

At times Next To Normal can be a difficult watch – it’s a million miles away from a frothy, feel-good musical. Whilst it isn’t sung-through, there’s not a lot of dialogue and the story is told through song – there are over thirty of them – and at times Kitt’s big melodies can be a bit overwhelming but given the subject matter, maybe that’s the point – it’s a relentless journey that we’re taken on. What really elevates the show are the superb performances from the six-strong cast. Broadway star Cassie Levy is magnificent as Diana as we feel her pain which is both mental and physical. Jamie Parker, fresh from his triumph in the title role in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is superb as Dan, Cassie’s long-suffering husband struggling to deal with a wife who is no longer the woman he married. Jack Wolfe and Eleanor Worthington-Cox as their two children are both fairly new to the West End stage (although Worthington-Cox won an Oliver as one of the original Matildas) and are definitely ones to watch – they’ve both got big futures. Trevor Dion Nicholas plays two of Cassie’s doctors and has a big booming voice that fits well with some big, booming songs. Rounding out the cast is Jack Ofrecio who is very good in a minor part as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend.

Donmar’s Artistic Director Michael Longhurst directs the piece which he does splendidly. There are some delightful little touches such as the band dressed in white doctor’s coats when Cassie is in hospital and blood appears like magic on the floor when Cassie attempts suicide. All the technical aspects of the production are also first-rate. Chloe Lamford’s set is excellent as it has to stand in for various locations although it’s mainly set in the family kitchen. Lee Curran’s lighting is perfect and combines seamlessly with some excellent video projections from Tal Rosner which at times takes us into Cassie’s mind as she struggles with her various problems. The six-piece band, led by MD Nick Barstow are tremendous. They’re placed on the balcony and although behind translucent screens, these are often lifted as part of the action and we get to see them as an integral part of the production using strings to underpin the melancholy.

Next To Normal was originally staged on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tonys including Best Original Score and then went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama so its London debut was well overdue. Was it worth the wait? Definitely, but you may need to want to watch something funny when you get home!

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

This production includes strong language. There are depictions of various mental health conditions and disorders referred to in the script as ‘bipolar disorder with delusional episodes’, anxiety and complicated grief after a child bereavement. On stage there is recreational and medical drug use, the aftermath of a suicide attempt, visual blood clean-up and electroconvulsive therapy. These themes are not just suggested but will be portrayed at times in the production realistically and/or emotively which some viewers may find disturbing.

14 August 2023 – 7 October 2023
Music by TOM KITT and Book and Lyrics by BRIAN YORKEY

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