Tuesday, July 16

Next To Normal – Wyndhams Theatre

When cult favourite ‘Next To Normal’ was announced at the Donmar Warehouse in 2023, critical acclaim and incredible word-of-mouth made it a sell-out smash, and one of the highlights of the year for many theatre fans.  The Donmar’s intimate space meant many fans missed out on seeing it, and if you were one of them, you need to be heading to Leicester Square’s Wyndhams Theatre, where the show has returned for another limited run.  Reassembling the Donmar’s celebrated cast (including Broadway belter Caissie Levy), the multi-award winning musical explores mental illness and grief in the face of trying to maintain a “normal” suburban family life, set to a rock-based score from composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey.

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 from various doctors (Trevor Dion Nicholas), 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.  You’re invested in these characters from the very beginning, and this pays out tenfold as the characters navigate their way through the story and reach their breaking and healing points.  Boldly directed by 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, at times painfully dark and intense, 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.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen the show at the Donmar already knows how strong the show is, but somehow, transferring to the Wyndhams has made an incredible show even better.  Despite being a larger space, the show’s intimacy crucially hasn’t been lost, and the show feels a perfect fit for the venue.  Everything feels heightened, Longhurst’s already-tight direction even punchier, character interactions even more emotively-played with pitch-perfect nuance, and a general sense of assurance and power.  This is as bold and brilliant a production of ‘Next To Normal’ could and likely will ever be.  Kitts’ score soars at the hands of the talented band of six, growling at times, quietly heart-breaking at others, and reaps huge rewards with repeated listens where the motifs really start to resonate. Brian Yorkey’s lyrics are sharp and clever, brutal and beautiful, creating some really poetic sentiments in the middle of the darkness. 

The returning Donmar cast continue to excel in their performances, again somehow improving on their already-brilliant portrayals last year.  Caissie Levy is an absolute knockout, layering her Diana with grit and vulnerability and laying her soul bare on the stage.  She gives her absolute all, playing it with incredible conviction and mesmerising throughout, earning that Olivier nomination (and arguably should have won in favour of Nicola Scherzinger’s Norma).  Levy proves why she’s one of Broadway’s brightest lights and is a true powerhouse, holding nothing back in either her acting choices or phenomenal vocals.  Eleanor Worthington-Cox and Jack Wolfe also continue to wow as Natalie and Gabe respectively (again thoroughly deserving of Olivier nominations), giving performances with depths that far exceed their youth and relatively new careers.  Both have found new depths within their characters, played with exceptional skill, and the thought of what they may go on to achieve in the industry is thrilling. Jamie Parker was shockingly omitted from the Olivier nominations, which is heartbreaking given the breadth of emotion he’s giving on stage.  He takes Dan on a real journey, from family man putting on a brace face holding everything together, to broken husband and father being crushed by his own grief, and Parker plays every beat of it beautifully, his final desolation coming off the stage in waves and unflinchingly believable.  Collectively, you won’t find four stronger lead performances in London right now.  They are also brilliantly supported by a commanding Trevor Dion Nicholas as Diana’s doctors with different methods of treatment, and Jack Ofrecio as Natalie’s love interest Henry, full of likeability and charm.

Having something like ‘Next To Normal’ in the West End proves that there’s plenty of space (and demand) for more than just jukebox musicals and film adaptations, that sometimes audiences need rich character-driven stories that really dig deep into the highs and lows of life.  Compelling, gripping and with a bittersweet quality that will haunt you for days after, ‘Next To Normal’ is an incredible piece of theatre.  For all the light on our stages, we need some darkness, and ‘Next To Normal’ delivers it beautifully.  If you missed out last time, don’t miss out again.  ‘Next To Normal’ is essential viewing.

‘Next To Normal’ runs at the Wyndhams Theatre until Saturday 21st September 2024.

Performance run time 2 hours 30 minutes including interval. https://www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk/whats-on/next-to-normal  

Reviewer:  Rob Bartley

Reviewed: 25th June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.