Some storming performances elevate some questionable material in Next to Normal at the Donmar Warehouse
“Maybe I’ve lost it at last”
There’s still always a raised eyebrow or two when a musical tackles a serious subject, such is the ingrained cultural expectation of what the form is (especially in the UK). Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal very much fits into that mould as it deals with the mental health challenges of its protagonist. But as with Dear Evan Hansen which similarly goes ‘dark’, there’s an accompanying tendency to try and resolve these thorny issues within a song or two and a neatness that rarely rings true.
Next to Normal focuses on Diana, a suburban wife and mother whose bipolar diagnosis reverberates forcefully throughout the lives of herself and her family. Her husband is constantly searching for the right thing to do, their teenage children are acting out to get attention for themselves and she’s battling a medical establishment offering a range of increasingly drastic interventions that bring with them their own serious consequences. It is complex material but a little too often flattened out without the depth and detail one might have expected.
Michael Longhurst’s outgoing production for the Donmar Warehouse does really well to try and mitigate some of this, a lyrical tendency towards earnestness tempered by visual cues of genuine emotion, the strength of unspoken familial bonds highlighted over attitudes towards mental health that already feel a little dated since the 15 or so years when it was written. And the way in which grief finally manifests is truly affecting, the elegance of that unwinding story is undoubted.
Performance-wise, Longhurst maintains a crack Donmar standard. Caissie Levy’s Diana stuns in her state of delusion and disorder and nails the rockier edges of Kitt’s score. Jamie Parker is quietly excellent in what is turning out to be a great year for him and Eleanor Worthington-Cox and Jack Wolfe do so well at conveying the contrasting experiences of their children, Wolfe’s vocal in particular is extraordinary at times. Musically, it’s not fully my bag but Nick Barstow’s musical direction keeps it sounding great and Chloe Lamford’s design does a fantastic job of reconceiving how the space can be used when there’s a band to fit in as well. A powerful production of material that might have had its day.