Saturday, September 30

Next To Normal – Donmar Warehouse

Cult favourite ‘Next To Normal’ has taken 15 years to reach our shores, and while it’s relatively unknown over here, it arrives on the back of a wave of adoration from its devoted fanbase, not to mention the critical acclaim (Tony Awards a Pulitzer, no less).  The show comes from the mind of composer Tom Kitts, who along with Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), tells a story of a family dealing with a crippling mental health problem which has governed their lives for the best part of 2 decades. News of the show’s UK premiere was met with massive excitement, with its limited run selling incredibly well.  But was it worth the wait?

Wife and mother Diane Goodman (Caissie Levy) is struggling with bi-ploar disorder, and the toll it’s taking on her family, daughter Natalie (Eleanor Worthington Cox), son Gabe (Jack Wolfe), and husband Dan (Jamie Parker). As Diane worsens and medical help is sought, prescription drugs and experimental therapies threaten to remove all trace of who Diana is, and she faces either forgetting the traumatic event that caused her condition or being consumed by it. Together, the family try to survive, hoping that even if they can never have a normal life, they might find something next to it.

Similar in tone and style to ‘Rent’ and ‘Spring Awakening’, ‘Next To Normal’ is a character-driven study of a family in crisis; humans are complicated, mental health even more so, and ‘Next To Normal’ goes where few musicals would ever dare to tread, tackling grief, depression, bi-polar disorders, drug abuse and attempted suicide.  Most musicals only show you what a character wants, Next To Normal shows who they are, and this no-holds-barred approach to character insight is what makes the show almost viscerally gripping.  Boldly directed by Donmar Artistic Director Michael Longhurst, the show is a raw assault on the senses, fully committing to exploring these flawed characters and making it a compelling watch.  It’s by no means an easy watch, and fans of frothy light entertainment should perhaps look elsewhere, but those who stay will be richly rewarded by an incredibly moving piece of theatre. Having the show performed an intimate setting (with clever design by Chloe Lamford) takes you right to the heart of this story, like you’re in Diana’s kitchen with her and feeling her struggle. Sitting close enough to see tears on the actors faces, hearing them breathe and see them tremble is incredibly powerful.

Kitt’s score isn’t instantly accessible, and while there are obvious standouts (“I’m Alive”, “I Miss The Mountains”), it really requires repeat listens to really let its motifs resonate. Equal parts tender piano and rocky guitar, its richness reveals itself slowly but has a definite power to get under your skin and stay there. Brian Yorkey’s lyrics are sharp and clever, brutal and beautiful, creating some really poetic sentiments in the middle of the darkness.  The first half of the show does feel the more successful, with Act 2 somewhat less sharp (perhaps deliberately as the characters reach their breaking points), and it does feel a little relentlessly heavy as it nears its end, as opposed to the stronger first act which strikes a better balance of light and dark. The ending also doesn’t quite provide the uplifting payoff that’s needed after the heavier material, and although a fairytale “happy ever after” would be a complete copout, it just feels a little unsatisfying as a dramatic conclusion. This may be down to Kitt’s final song “Light” which doesn’t quite transcend into the song it’s trying to be. 

This is an actor’s musical, the singing is secondary (phenomenal as it is), and without true emotion behind every word, it wouldn’t work. Luckily with this cast, it does.  Eleanor Worthington Cox (one of the original Olivier-winning Matildas) proves herself to be a phenomenal actress with the skill to play humour and heartbreak with a single line, with a fantastic singing voice to match, and she deserves to win another statue for this portrayal.  Jack Wolfe’s Gabe haunts the stage, cleverly dressed in telling greys, and shows off a powerful voice.  Wolfe plays the duality of adolescent rage and childlike innocence perfectly.  Jamie Parker feels at times that the score doesn’t sit as naturally with him as it does the other cast members (surprising given Parker’s usual enviable skill and great voice), but he comes into his own as Dan in the show’s final stretch, showing a broken man crumbling with sadness and grief. He may not quite match Levy’s phenomenal vocals, but his desolation comes off the stage in waves and is unflinchingly believable.

The role of Diana requires a versatile and nuanced actress to play the story’s emotional depth while delivering the light and shade of Kitt’s score, and Caissie Levy is astonishing. The character fits her like a decent skin, she gives her all, and shows why she’s one of Broadway’s finest performers. An absolute career high (from a CV that includes Elphaba, Fantine and Elsa), Levy will be the talk of London town with this performance, thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measure, and pretty much has next year’s Olivier win secured.  There really is no finer performance by an actress to be seen on the London stage right now.

It may have taken 15 years for ‘Next To Normal’ to get here, but it was absolutely worth the wait.  Raw, emotive, with dark gritty realism, it pulls no punches with the topics it covers.  It’s a far cry from your typical American musical where the audience claps along at the finale, and it’s all the better for it.  For all the light on our stages, we need some darkness, and ‘Next To Normal’ delivers it beautifully.

‘Next To Normal’ runs at the Donmar Warehouse until Saturday 7th October 2023.

Performance run time 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Reviewer: Rob Bartley

Reviewed: 23rd August 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.