Next to Normal, Donmar Warehouse, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road
  • Recommended

Review

Next to Normal

3 out of 5 stars

This cult US musical has some dodgy views on mental health, but this is a sensational UK premiere

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Time Out says

This review is from August 2023. ‘Next To Normal’ transfers to Wyndham’s Theatre in June 2024. The entire Donmar cast will return.

It’s taken Broadway indie smash ‘Next To Normal’ a walloping 15 years to make it to London. I’m not totally sure why: probably something to do with investors getting spooked by the West End failure of the not-dissimilar ‘Spring Awakening’. But this UK debut for Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer winner has been a long time coming. And outgoing Donmar Warehouse boss Michael Longhurst matches the pent-up demand with a sensational production – even if I’m doubtful whether the musical itself lives up to the hype.

In particular, it’s a privilege to see Broadway star Caissie Levy in the lead part of bipolar mum/mom Diana, whose inability to get over a tragedy that occurred 18 years ago is the engine of the story. She is remarkable in a role that requires her to shift between emotional extremes at the drop of a pin, and has a tremendous voice, pure and clean and cutting. In a very real sense she is the show: it’s her total belief in Diana that keeps the whole thing soaring in spite of some very questionable writing.

Jamie Parker is excellent as Dan, Diana’s loyal husband, who has sacrificed his own happiness in order to look after her, but has seemingly confined them both to a cage wrought from his good intentions.

And there’s fine work from Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Diane and Dan’s daughter Natalie, who has grown into a deeply neurotic young woman under the dubious care of parents too wrapped up in their own drama to really think of her.

Smartly using the band playing area as part of the set, and with a clever, maneuverable kitchen-centric design from Chloe Lamford, Longhurst directs fluidly, and coaxes deeply-felt performances from his cast. A couple of moments of proggy excess aside, Kitt’s score is great: lush, melodious and propulsive, a tuneful tumble of 37 burningly intense, sometimes spikily funny songlets. And there’s brilliantly witty choreography from Ann Yee that really maximises the small cast and space.

Still, as a musical about mental illness it feels… lacking if you actually take a moment to consider what’s going on, something the full-tilt performances are admittedly good at distracting you from. 

The message throughout seems to be that much as Diana has been damaged by one specific incident, she is also over-medicated by her doctors and suffocated by Dan, and that addressing these two factors will allow her to move on with her life. Which feels a bit… libertarian, to be honest. Clearly over-medication is more of a thing in America, and let’s not get too bogged down in the verisimilitude of it all when it’s a musical. But there’s something a bit questionable about its suspicion of medical science versus the merits of simply confronting one’s problems and pulling oneself up by the boots. I can’t help but feel Yorkey’s book and lyrics frequently mistake sincerity for insight when it comes to addressing mental illness. 

I’m also wary of why two male writers felt they wanted a female protagonist – despite Levy’s gut-wrenching performance, Diana feels notably manic pixie, as does the sardonic Natalie. There’s something wearying about associating female mental health problems with kookiness

It’s notable that they do a lot better with nominal straight man Dan, who feels far more rounded and nuanced, an exasperated but loving husband tragically blind to the fact that his efforts to do the right thing have consistently made things worse. Jamie Parker is a great actor who we’ve not seen nearly enough of in recent years, and he really nails the complexities of a character who in his own way occupies both the hero and villain role.

If you like extremely sincere, extremely angsty modern American musicals then… you almost certainly already have a ticket, and I very much doubt you’ll regret it.

Clearly I am in a more skeptical camp: I’d trade 50 percent of the passion for ten percent more depth. But there’s no denying the fact that as a boutique musical theatre experience, this is pretty special. As art, it’s problematic; as entertainment, it’s first-rate.

Details

Address
Wyndham's Theatre
Charing Cross Road
London
WC2H 0DA
Transport:
Tube: Leicester Square; Rail: Charing Cross
Price:
£23-£65. Runs 2hr 25min

Dates and times

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