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Review: Next to Normal, Wyndham’s Theatre

Review: Next to Normal, Wyndham’s Theatre

An rock musical that tackles mental health head on…

Image: Jack Wolfe and Caissie Levy (c) Marc Brenner

Three Stars

Having just transferred to the West End from the Donmar Warehouse, Next to Normal has rightfully generated serious buzz. First staged in 2008 before a 2009 Broadway run followed by a US tour, this is the show’s first run on the West End. A daunting prospect for any production – more eyes, more press, more attention.

The story, with book and lyrics written by Brian Yorkey, centres around an American family that begins to spiral apart as the mother (Caissie Levy) struggles with worsening bipolar disorder. We see the chaos that follows the effects of her disorder, both on herself and her family, as the story develops to cover a multitude of themes: grief, love, drug abuse, and just about everything in between.

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The show is certainly ambitious: taking a story that wouldn’t be out of place on a serious documentary about mental health and turning it into a rock musical. There are a few numbers, particularly in the first act, where the tonal balance is particularly jarring, as cast members sing in foot-tapping, jaunty rhythm about the dangers of overmedication. This might not be a problem if the script were aiming for dark humour, but for the most part the themes are played entirely straight and with absolute sincerity. The first act in particular suffers from a problem of exposition-through-song, as important plot points are delivered to us through slightly awkwardly-sung lines of singing – a result of the near-complete absence of dialogue scenes.

It is in the second act where things start to feel a little more cohesive. The first act has done the legwork of exposition, so the second act is free to explore the emotional core of its story. It is in this second act where you realise that, while bipolar disorder is at the centre of this story, it’s not really a story about bipolar disorder at all. It’s a story about grief. And it’s a story about what happens to a family that tries to brush difficult memories under the rug, that tries to wear a perfect face when the wounds underneath haven’t healed properly.

It’s all very American: the not-so-perfect suburban family a classic trifecta of stifled mother, angsty daughter and the father who’s just trying his best. The show’s American roots are clear in the sheer sincerity with which it attacks its themes. At times its characters seems almost like open wounds – their emotions are always at the surface and ready burst forth with the tap of a drum and opening notes of a rock ballad. This works when it comes to Diana’s story – the overwhelming nature of her condition is reflected in the constant cacophony of guitars and banging of drums, and the manic, electric lighting. But there is little tonal contrast to juxtapose what it’s like to be in Diana’s head to the rest of the world. Every character is living in this same heightened reality, and every character is always upset, and always singing about how upset they are, all of the time.

But for all its tonal puzzlements, Next to Normal does appear to reach some kind of real emotional truth by its end. There is no heavy-handed tragic ending, nor a neat wrapping up of happily-ever-afters; but rather a steady acknowledgment that there is no one-size-fits-all fix when it comes to serious mental health issues. The message, ultimately, becomes this: that sometimes you just have to keep on living, and you have to find small ways to going about doing that amidst all the noise. It’s a surprisingly resigned, yet quietly hopeful, conclusion to such an intensified story.

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Caissie Levy delivers a strong performance in the main role of Diana, embodying her role with a compelling and dynamic execution. She plays Diana’s intense mixture of hyper-mania and serious vulnerability well, without ever veering into over-acting. The other standout was Jack Wolfe in the role of Gabe, whose performance subtly creeps up on you until it bowls you over with his solo song ‘I’m Alive,’ which is easily the best song in the show.

The other standout number is the first act’s ‘I Am the One’ and its reprise in the second act. Most of the other numbers are fairly good, but don’t quite reach the level of greatness achieved by these two showstoppers.

The staging is simple with no major set changes, and this combined with a cast comprised of only six people does lend a claustrophobic air to the production. It works, because it reflects the stifled, spiralling way its main character Diana lives in her condition, the constraints placed upon her by her illness, her doctors and, in some ways, her family itself.

In the end, Next to Normal is a story with a lot of heart. It may be at times a little overly sincere, but perhaps what we need more of in the world right now is sincerity. In a content landscape currently filled with stories that seem almost afraid to take themselves too seriously, that coat themselves in a heavy armour of archness and irony, it’s actually refreshing to see a show that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.

Next to Normal is booking at Wyndham’s Theatre until 21 September 2024