“Mental illness is seldom a private affair. It bleeds out onto others. While it doesn’t spread as reliably as smallpox, it can easily consume a family and everyone around it.”

Credit: Marc Brenner

Conceived in 2008, Next to Normal became the recipient of three Tony Awards and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Described not so much as “feel good” but “feel everything,” the show chronicles Diana, a mother and wife who lives with bipolar disorder and feels her world crumbling around her. Despite her seemingly insular struggle, the show also showcases the impact this has on her family. For reasons that will become clear upon viewing, that’s as far as I’ll go when it comes to the plot. However, it’s safe to say that the profound nature of this show makes it one of the theatrical triumphs of the year.

Directed by the Donmar’s artistic director, Michael Longhurst, we are presented with a staging that is subtle but deceptively clever. Depicting a modern-day ‘open plan’ apartment, the set design by Chloe Lamford works beautifully with the ever-changing emotions of the story. Initially, I was drawn to the idyllic aesthetic, only to peel back the layers later on. Everyday items such as a fridge serve as a hidden entrance for actors, and a kitchen counter (one of the best uses of a revolve I’ve seen recently) doubles as an Electroconvulsive Therapy unit. As with the best designs, it’s there to serve the story and characters, and only later does it dawn on you how clever it is.

Working in tandem is the diverse musical score by co-writer Tom Kitt. Despite essentially being classified as a rock musical, the songs use dynamic musical stylings to showcase the ever-changing mental state of Diana. Heavy rock is used to great effect in the more intense moments, while a more contemplative folk vibe is present in ‘I Miss the Mountains’. This builds to a haunting lullaby, ‘I Dreamed a Dance’, a moment that lulls the audience into a false sense of security before fully revealing its intent. Moments like this showcase why this score has received Tony Awards.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Despite dealing with the delicate subject matter, Brian Yorkey’s book does a great job injecting just the right amount of dark humour and honesty throughout to keep proceedings from becoming overwhelming.

When it comes to the ensemble cast, they simply do not miss a beat. Broadway veteran Cassie Levy brings an assured quality to the role of Diana, complex but always understated. Levy gives an earnest portrayal of bipolar disorder, honestly communicating the character’s struggles. “Please let her be okay” was my initial intermission thought, and that is a testament to Levy. That being said, the heart of the show comes from the mesmerising performances of the family. Jamie Parker brings vulnerability and ever-growing frustration to the role of husband Dan, who suppresses his own grief and emotions to comfort his wife. Jack Wolfe has a tough job in the character of Gabe, but he provides malevolence without tipping into caricature. His performance of ‘I’m Alive’ is one of the musical highlights of the evening, however, it is the performance of Eleanor Worthington-Cox that is the heart of the show. Having recently been seen in Jerusalem and To Kill a Mockingbird, Worthington-Cox demonstrates a wonderful maturity in depicting insecurity and fear of becoming like her mother. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking performance and truly is the centrepiece of the show. Trevor Dion Nicholas brings soulful gravitas to the role of Doctor Manning, while Jack Ofrecio does his best as Henry, despite having the most underwritten role of the show.

Whilst Dear Evan Hansen is known to be the musical that pushed the subject of mental health to centre stage, I feel that Next to Normal does a far more nuanced job and delivers a far more mature message.

Sometimes shows come along at the right moment and deliver everything powerful about musical theatre. Despite its limited run, I suspect the impact of this show will be long-lasting.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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