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The Normal Heart review: Seminal AIDS drama ‘still seethes with anger and passion’

Director Dominic Cooke "mines the humour as well as the tragedy", writes Simon Button.

By Alastair James

Words: Simon Button; pictures: Helen Maybanks

When it premiered Off-Broadway in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart was a call to arms – a battle cry by its author for a political and medical response to the Aids crisis. Now it’s a period piece, but one that still seethes with anger and passion as it charts the devastating swathe the pandemic cut through the gay community.

Dominic Cooke’s brilliantly-staged revival starts with men stripping off their shirts to dance to the hedonistic disco of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ as New York’s early-80s club scene throbs to the thrill of casual sex and post-Stonewall liberation.

But writer and activist Ned Weeks isn’t in the mood for dancing; he’s out to raise awareness of a sexually transmitted disease that is killing gay men and he doesn’t care who he pisses off in the process.

Ben Daniels as Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

A stand-in for Kramer himself, Ned is mad as hell that the media is ignoring the crisis, no funding is available for treatment and nobody in high office gives a shit, seemingly because the fast-rising death toll is only amongst a marginalised community.

Ben Daniels is outstanding as Weeks as he rubs fellow activists up the wrong way and rants and raves to everyone except his new boyfriend Felix (Dino Fetscher). It’s a powerhouse performance but not one-note. Ben’s Ned is passionate but often infuriating, angry but sometimes alienating, yet he’s tender and loving towards Felix and he is, of course, right to be enraged.

His rage is eventually shared by Dr. Emma Brookner, a wheelchair-bound polio survivor who initially counsels that gay men should simply stop having indiscriminate sex but becomes more and more frustrated at the heads-in-the-sand mentality of the government.

As played by the amazing Liz Carr, Brookner is a seething cauldron who ultimately explodes in an ovation-worthy tirade.

Liz Carr as Dr. Emma Brookner in The Normal Heart (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Fetscher is especially good in a story arc that requires him to be far more than just the gorgeous new man on Ned’s arm, and everyone in the cast is superb.

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher as Felix in The Normal Heart (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

If there are flaws, they’re in the play itself. At times it has a detached, didactic tone that keeps us at a distance and there are a few too many big speeches across its bloated 2 hours and 40 minutes run time.

But Cooke mines the humour as well as the tragedy and in the end it delivers the kind of emotional wallop, realistic and earned, that had the audience I saw it with choking back sobs as one character’s agonising howls of grief illustrate how the Donna Summer-soundtracked party is well and truly over.

Rating: 4/5

The Normal Heart is at the National Theatre, London, until 6 November. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.

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