Review by Daz Gale
If you ask any musical theatre lover what Broadway shows are on their wish list to open in London, many would select Next To Normal as one of theirs. A firm favourite among theatre fans, British audiences have been crying out for the chance to see this acclaimed show for the past 15 years. Thankfully, their prayers have finally been answered as the show makes its UK debut with a limited run at Donmar Warehouse. With expectations higher than most shows, would it ever be able to deliver?
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the show, it feels appropriate to give a content warning. Next To Normal deals with some truly intense issues around mental health, While I won’t get into specifics in this review for multiple reasons as I never like to reveal spoilers that could impact the enjoyment of somebody seeing the show for the first time, I would advise checking the content warnings around this show before seeing it, as it can be a tough watch regardless of whether you relate to any of the aspects of it or not. Click this link for content advice.
First appearing off-Broadway in 2008 and playing on Broadway from 2009-2011, Next To Normal is a show that has rarely been seen since, despite its cult status among legions of theatre lovers. Centred around the Goodman family, it sees the four members exploring themes of grief and loss as well as their own mental health with a no-holds-barred approach to topics seldom discussed in such length on stage. As the family matriarch tries to come to terms with her own diagnosis and the ripple effect it has on her family, will they all be able to overcome events from their past?
The way these themes are explored is refreshing due to its refusal to shy away from subjects too often seen as taboo. With more people having more understanding attitudes towards mental health in the 15 years since Next To Normal was first seen, it feels more important than ever. The way these themes are conveyed in an intimate yet at times brutal manner is a testament to the genius writing from Brian Yorkey, full of depth and nuance, creating a multifaceted plot that lingers on your mind long after you leave the theatre. Without giving away any of the finer details of the show, the story features a twist midway through which carries with it a real punch to the gut. The way this moment is built and revealed is a great example of the quality of the writing, and is even more satisfying on repeat viewing when you spot all the moments that foreshadowed it.
Tom Kitt provides an impressively consistent soundtrack to the show with his music creating a winning combination with Brian Yorkey’s lyrics to form a phenomenally high standard of songs which manages the rarest of feats – an inability to pick a single standout number due to the sheer number of incredible songs at play. From the slow burn of deceptive opener ‘Just Another Day’ to the stimulating final number ‘Light’, Next To Normal features no shortage of brilliant numbers. Whether you are familiar with the Broadway cast recording or are new to the songs, they all feel like instant classics with melodies that will be stuck in your head for weeks.
These incredible musical numbers need an equally incredible cast to truly do them justice, and this is where Next To Normal really shines. Assembling a small but mighty cast of some of the finest performers in both the West End and Broadway, there is no shortage of talent on that stage. Leading the pack is Caissie Levy, making a long-awaited return to London as Diana Goodman. Forming the heart of the story, we often see events through her eyes. Caissie has no problem navigating us through her journey in a performance that expertly and sensitively showcases her contrasting behaviour in relation to health issues and how she responds to the treatment. A true master of her craft, Caissie is perpetually sensational, knowing when to reign in the more sombre moments for full impact and when to go in all guns blazing. And then there’s her singing voice. With multiple chances to showcase her beautiful tone, she thrills with versatile approaches to numbers ‘You Don’t Know’ and the rousing ‘Didn’t I See This Movie?’ However, it is her sensitive approach to early favourite ‘I Miss The Mountains’ that really stood out, conveying the message of the poignant lyrics with ease and effortlessly connecting with every audience member.
It would be easy to dismiss Next To Normal as a one star show, but that couldn’t be further from the truth as each of the six cast members get their chance to shine. Jamie Parker continues his flawless track record for new musicals in London this year with a captivating turn as Diana’s husband Dan. Though his character has to often take a back seat, the understated nature of his performance showcases his talents as an actor and makes the moments he is centre stage all the more impactful. His performances of numbers ‘I’ve Been’ and ‘I Am The One’ created two of the strongest moments of the show.
Trevor Dion Nicholas gets another chance to showcase his immeasurable talent in the dual role of Dr Fine and Dr Madden. Though his stage time is relatively limited, his remarkable vocals and powerful stage presence meant the time he was on stage made him a force to be reckoned with. Jack Ofrecio gives a winning turn as the sweet-natured Henry whose attempts to win over the Goodmans daughter Natalie despite his sudden realisation of the issues the family are facing added a sweet sub-story to a show that can too often overpower you with intensity.
As Natalie, Eleanor Worthington-Cox channels all of this intensity to create a performance so overwhelming, it must be exhausting to play. With no shortage of emotion on her face throughout, Eleanor’s unflinching nature makes her one of the characters you respond to most, particularly as we see her time away from the family. Like her fellow cast members, her vocals are also off the scale amazing, particularly coming alive in the spectacular ‘Superboy and the Invisible Girl’ and the heartfelt duet ‘Maybe’ with her mother.
The cast are completed by Jack Wolfe as Gabe in a performance I am unlikely to forget in a hurry, if ever. Due to the nature of his character's journey, his performance requires a lot of contrasting elements – all of which he delivers flawlessly. Gabe is regularly on stage in the background while other characters stories play out, but the characterisation Jack manages even in these sometimes lengthy scenes is astonishing to witness. With a face full of expression and eyes filled with emotion, he manages to connect like few performers too, delivering what I consider to be one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed. A truly sensational performer, the only thing that could equal his acting and presence was his singing. What a voice Jack is blessed with. With a range that seemingly knows no limits, his biggest solo number ‘I’m Alive’ may well have been the highlight of the entire show, as hard as it may be to pick one such is the high calibre of it all.
Michael Longhurst directs the action with care, never compromising the integrity or sensitivity of the content. This results in a number of inspired choices that ensures every aspect of the show hits with the biggest impact possible. Ann Yee’s movement and choreography adds to the fantastic direction, creating clearly defined moments for each character. Chloe Lamford’s set design sees a multi-level approach with the band towering above the Goodmans kitchen, at times obscured which I took to represent the haziness of Dianas mind, and becoming clearer as she discovers more clarity herself. This allows for some exceptional moments using video design from Tal Rosner and stunning lighting from Lee Curran, while Tomy Gayle’s crystal clear sound design ensures no moments are ever lost.
Next To Normal may not be the easiest of watches but that is part of what makes it so special. If theatre is meant to leave a lasting impression and make you think, this show does that in spades. Added with the ability to make you relate to it and potentially change attitudes towards mental health issues and educate some, there is a lot of good that can be done thanks to people seeing this show. Those elements alone make it something that goes far deeper than your average show, but when it comes to the production aspects, those are also at the top of their game.
Phenomenal writing and quite possibly the best cast you will see on stage in London this year with Caissie Levy and Jack Wolfe’s performances destined to win awards, Next To Normal may well be the theatre event of the year. While the Donmar Warehouse run is sold out, I struggle to see a world where this sensational production fails to get a future life. This is a story and a production as many people as possible need to see, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it residing in a major West End theatre in the not too distant future.
Next To Normal plays at Donmar Warehouse until 7th October. Tickets from www.donmarwarehouse.com
Photos by Marc Brenner