Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of the UK Premiere of NEXT TO NORMAL?

Next To Normal is at The Donmar Warehouse until 7 October.

By: Aug. 23, 2023
Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of the UK Premiere of NEXT TO NORMAL?
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Critically acclaimed Broadway musical Next to Normal has now opened at London's Donmar Warehouse.

Caissie Levy stars as Diana, a suburban wife and mother living with bipolar disorder and haunted by her past. Donmar Artistic Director Michael Longhurst directs the long-awaited UK première of this powerful musical about a far from average family.

So, what did the critics think?

Matt Wolf, New York Times:  The production boasts a genuine breakout star in the fresh-faced Jack Wolfe, who seizes the role of the antic son, Gabe, and brings a darting sense of danger whenever he appears on the two-tiered stage. (The music director Nick Barstow’s expert band is positioned above the action, obscured now and again by screens that suggest a clouded mind.) In superb voice, Wolfe has an electrifying talent that more than matches Levy’s own, and when he rocks out on the character’s solo number “I’m Alive” — Gabe’s searing anthem of self-assertion — it feels as if there’s no more vital theatrical place to be.

Cindy Marcolina, BroadwayWorldIt’s a heart-shatteringly extraordinary piece of theatre. It has no heroes or villains, just ordinary people trying to survive intense heartache and the alienation of mental illness. As Kitt and Yorkey untangle the knots between pain and rage, empathy and resentment with their hard-hitting tableaux of sorrow, Longhurst’s venue and its intimate auditorium elicit an emotional response whether you want it or not.

Marianka Swain, London TheatreEmbrace the pain. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Tony and Pulitzer-winning chamber musical, which has finally reached the UK 15 years after its momentous Off-Broadway debut, really puts you through the wringer in its raw depiction of mental illness and family disconnection. But this courageous and deeply moving piece provides ecstasy as well as agony, light as well as darkness.

Emma John, The GuardianBrian Yorkey’s book and lyrics prove that a portrait of a chronic mental illness doesn’t have to be grim. There is plenty of verve and momentum in a first half that fizzes with humour, from a sexy jazz number about Diana’s pill regimen to the patter song in which her well-intentioned, desperate husband (Jamie Parker) tries to convince himself that all will be well. Chloe Lamford’s stylish design reflects the energy on stage with screens that sometimes hide and sometimes reveal the musicians, and mirror manic episodes with dizzying electric patterns.

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage: One of the most impressive things about Next to Normal is the way that it considers mental health with deep seriousness, suggesting how little medical science knows, how much treatment is trial and effort, and how the person being “helped” might actually feel that the price of what seems like a cure is simply too high.  “The memories are gone, but the aftershocks live on,” says Gabe at one point; this is a show that asks what makes a life, and what makes a person.

Dave Fargnoli, The StageYorkey’s characters are compellingly written, each remaining strongly sympathetic even as they make terrible choices that cause harm to themselves and those around them. However, Yorkey’s treatment of Diana’s illness feels under-researched: her complex symptoms – amnesia, bipolar disorder and psychosis – serve as little more than plot devices. The show’s optimistic message, that positive change comes from accepting the things in life we can’t control, feels ill-considered when it justifies Diana’s refusal of life-saving treatment.

Nick CurtisEvening StandardKitt and Yorkey’s decision to write about mental health implicitly rebukes those who think musicals can’t be serious. Their approach is compassionate, thoughtful, but also witty, showing us the fantasies Diana projects on her doctors (both played with extravagant gusto by Trevor Dion Nicholas). Healthcare has been weaponised by conspiracy theorists since the show was written but it somehow navigates Diana’s choices – drugs, ECT or potentially-suicidal refusal of treatment – without scaring the horses.

Alice Saville, The Independent: Levy is wonderful in this central role: it’s worth a trip to the Donmar’s small space purely to see her sing at the kind of close quarters you wouldn’t get on Broadway, filling each note with a yearning and intensity that gives you a sense of a younger Diana, before the nerviness and frustration. “I Miss the Mountains” is a highlight: a bluesy ballad mourning her lost emotional highs and lows after she’s drugged into numbed stability.

Kirsten Grant, The TelegraphBafflingly, it has taken more than a decade for the US hit Next to Normal to make it onto a UK stage. A tale of a mother grappling with bipolar disorder may have been an unusual premise for a rock musical back in 2009, but Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s show proved an unstoppable force when it opened on Broadway, claiming three Tony Awards and the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama – becoming only the eighth musical to have done so. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that Michael Longhurst’s highly anticipated revival at the Donmar has already sold out – luckily, this moving and gut-wrenching production is mostly worthy of that hype.

Aline Mahrud, MonstagigThe casting is similarly strong around her with Jamie Parker (Guys and Dolls, Savoy) as the devoted husband trying to do the right thing while occasionally dad dancing and Trevor Dion Nicholas (Aladdin, Prince Edward Theatre) playing Diana’s doctors including 1 as a Robbie Williams-esque rock God. But we found ourselves most impressed by the 3 younger members of the cast. Jack Wolfe gives a charismatic turn as much-loved son Gabe especially during recurring song I’m Alive and his relationship with his sister Natalie played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox, a Best Actress Olivier winner for Matilda: The Musical, Cambridge Theatre) is well explored in song Superboy and the Invisible Girl.

Fiona Mountford, iNewsMichael Longhurst’s sensitive and intelligent production of this delicate chamber piece matches the six-strong cast with a six-piece band, which is spread out over the upstairs rooms of the family’s home. Levy is in magisterial form as she explores every angle of her turbulent and fugitive emotions, detailing them with unwavering musical power. The score is strong and striking, an unrelenting procession through the emotional wringer, although a couple of numbers could perhaps be trimmed. Kitt and Yorkey leave us with a quietly profound question: if a “normal” life is all but impossible to achieve, will one that is “next to normal” suffice instead?

Greg Stewart, Theatre Weekly: This may be the musical that paved the way for shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home, but it stands apart for its unwavering commitment to telling a truthful and honest story, no matter what.  It’s been a long fifteen years, but it’s been worth the wait as this emotionally charged production of Next to Normal is an absolute triumph that deserves, and needs, a longer run than is currently scheduled.

Simon Button, AttitudeBoth Levy and Parker have proven track records, as does the excellent Trevor Dion Nicholas as two of the doctors Diana turns to in despair. Daughter Natalie and son Gabe, Eleanor Worthington-Cox and Jack Wolfe are relative newcomers. They’re both staggeringly good. Eleanor is feisty yet but forlorn as a hormonal teenager who feels unseen by her parents. She’s reluctant to accept the unconditional love that a very sweet boy named Henry (Jack Ofrecio, offers. And all I can say about Wolfe is ‘Wow’. Pretty enough to be in a boyband, he brings a broody and almost menacing element to a character who stalks the stage and brings rock-star swagger to his big ‘I’m Alive’ number. Like the show itself, which rightfully won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, he’s electrifying.

Daz Gale, All That DazzlesPhenomenal writing and quite possibly the best cast you will see on stage in London this year with Caissie Levy and Jack Wolfe’s performances destined to win awards, Next To Normal may well be the theatre event of the year. While the Donmar Warehouse run is sold out, I struggle to see a world where this sensational production fails to get a future life. This is a story and a production as many people as possible need to see, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it residing in a major West End theatre in the not too distant future.

Laura Pye, City AMIt’s all set in a wonderfully realised family home, with tunes delivered by a band located in the attic, not dissimilar to the band in the recent Richard Hawley musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge. There’s a reason this musical has stood the test of time and the Donmar more than does it justice.

Alan Fitter, London Theatre1Next To Normal was originally staged on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tonys including Best Original Score and then went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama so its London debut was well overdue. Was it worth the wait? Definitely, but you may need to want to watch something funny when you get home!

Chris Selman, Gay Times: We’re pleased to report that the show lives up to the hype – Next to Normal tells an incredibly powerful story, the ensemble cast is superb and the songs are great. It feels like a bit of a throwback to the 2000s, when American punk and emo was dominating the charts; very different in style to most musicals in town but all the better for it. There are some truly inspired rhyming couplets – ‘sociopath’ and ‘Sylvia Plath’ is a highlight – and there are numerous standout songs. “I’m Alive” is anthemic and brilliantly sinister, while “So Anyway” is a tender ballad which packs a real emotional punch.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner


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