norman lebrecht

September 11, 2023

Next to Normal – Donmar Warehouse 

If you have ever lived with chronic mental illness – bi-polar, depression, anxiety – in yourself or someone you love, avoid Next To Normal because it will poleaxe you with your memories of your inability to cope.

Here you have a loving middle-class American family occupied with all the usual stuff – school, work, piano practice – blown up by a mom whose reality is fractured by a mental illness triggered by a tragedy which can’t be forgotten, avoided or got around. This incident has for her an enormity which destroys not only the mother, superbly played by Broadway star Caissie Levy, but also her entirely family and everyone in her path.

Every member of this cast is excellent and Michael Longhurst’s production, his last as Artistic Director of the Donmar, is a paradigm. It is impossible to imagine a better production of this musical. Jamie Parker is perfect as the husband who, in trying everything to stop his beloved wife from shattering, is both the hero and the villain in that everything he does makes the family situation and her illness worse.

Eleanor Worthington-Cox, (who won an Olivier for Matilda), is brilliant as the talented but inevitably neurotic teenage daughter, and Jack Wolfe gives a storming performance as the son. Trevor Dion Nicholas is versatile as the numerous psychiatrists and Jack Ofrecio as the daughter’s dogged boyfriend has real sweetness as well as strength.

The rock score, some 30-odd songs by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, does its job, often loud, always effective, and superbly sung by the entire cast. The on-stage band is set above the stage but always part of the action, and integrated throughout into the play and the characters.

One can argue with Next to Normal’s premise which is that the mother’s severe mental illness is exacerbated by over-medication, a common American complaint about the treatment of bi-polar conditions. I’m not qualified to judge, and that is definitely a reasonable argument to make in the context of this play but the fragmentation of this family, and their efforts to combat the dreadful effects of this kind of illness on family life, ring entirely true for anyone who has seen it at close hand.

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By mrtrv