There’s been some debate in theatrical circles about spoilers in reviews, specifically with regards to the London production of Next to Normal. I haven’t read any for the show prior to publishing these very thoughts, so I don’t know what the spoilers were, suffice to say I think it’s going to be difficult not to reveal something of what goes on in the storyline. Even the opening article in the production’s programme has an editor’s note: “the following article contains spoilers about Next to Normal”. In some respects, it may even be a tad irresponsible not to highlight the plight of Diana Goodman (Caissie Levy), who was diagnosed some years ago with bipolar disorder.
But there is also trauma from the past that hasn’t been resolved, and Diana’s mental state results in bizarre and challenging behaviour for her husband Dan (Jamie Parker) and their daughter Natalie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox). Commendably, the show never makes light of Diana’s conduct, consistently portraying it as a by-product of mental ill health. It’s a strikingly bleak narrative, however, and Natalie’s own mood swings, more a by-product of being a teenager than anything else, don’t exactly help.
The world at large, as ever, keeps turning, and to an extent it isn’t so much about Diana’s condition as to what her doctors are doing, or not doing, about it. Dr Fine, and then Dr Madden (both played by Trevor Dion Nicholas) try different techniques, ranging from an absurd regimen of medicine tablets to an intense course of ‘ECT’. If, like Natalie, your response is, “L-M-N-O-P. What is that?”, electroconvulsive therapy involves sending electric current through the brain, effectively inducing a brain seizure. This is meant to somehow relieve mental ill health, and although it isn’t a treatment without risk or controversy, on the balance of probabilities, Diana and Dan both sign the consent form.
Completing the list of on-stage characters is Henry (Jack Ofrecio), Natalie’s love interest, and Gabe (Jack Wolfe), Natalie’s brother, who gets a rocky big number called ‘I’m Alive’, giving an otherwise largely subtle show some pizazz. The show is, for the most part, intense, and the relatively small stage space in the Donmar Warehouse suits the production very well. It’s one of those musicals that has taken so long to get to London that some of the songs have become reasonably familiar to me, so it was good to hear them in context and fully understand what these musical numbers are all about.
The production values are very high, with what in some cases are rapidly performed lyrics absolutely crystal clear, the balance between the band (conducted by Natalie Pound at the performance I attended) and the cast pitch perfect throughout. The band itself is above the stage, at various points partially and almost entirely screened off, indicative of how clear Diana’s mind is. The show doesn’t go for a forced musical theatre happy ending, instead finding strength through unity in continuing to fight a battle far from over. It tugs at the heartstrings, and it’s easy to get invested in what’s going on, even if parts of the second half comes across as walls of songs without much opportunity to take in everything that’s happening. Still, it’s an engaging and emotional experience.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner