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Next to Normal review: The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical tears at the heart

Caissie Levy headlines an electrifying show about grief and depression, writes Simon Button

5.0 rating

By Simon Button

Caissie Levy in Next To Normal
Caissie Levy shines in Next To Normal (Image: Marc Brenner)

It’s hard to talk about the plot of Next to Normal without revealing the shocking twist at its centre. With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the story spotlights Diana (Caissie Levy) a woman with bipolar disorder, struggling to keep her family afloat. She finds her husband boring and her kids driving her to distraction. Played by Broadway’s Levy with a nice line in resigned humour when we first meet her, she’s seemingly on top of it all.

From Chloe Lamford’s set design, it’s made clear the family is well-to-do. Their custom-built house is complete with a double-doored fridge and a huge kitchen island. Father and husband Dan wears Polo by Ralph Lauren shirts, in contrast to his run-down and weary look. The ever-reliable Jamie Parker counters Levy’s initially fizzy self-deprecation with an air of defeat and we soon learn why.

To go into more detail, as a couple of critics have reprehensibly done, would spoil the emotional wallop that this musical delivers as Diana’s brave face begins to crumble from a painful memory that no amount of medication, therapy or hypnosis can help her overcome.

All this must make Next to Normal sound like a downer. It isn’t. Yes, it deals with mental health, grief, drug abuse, even suicide. And yes, it tears at the heart in a way few musicals manage. Diana’s deterioration is devastating to watch and tissues should be handed out on the way in because, as the performance I saw, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Caissie Levy in Next To Normal
Diana is a woman with bipolar disorder, struggling to keep her family afloat (Image: Marc Brenner)

But there’s humour here too. There’s a jazzy first act number about pill-popping, with doctors emerging from that giant fridge and using prescription jars as percussion instruments. At one point a character sings “I couldn’t give a flying f**k about what’s normal”, which is as far from Frozen as you could get.

I mention the Disney show because Levy was the original Elsa in the Broadway production, so it’s no surprise she can belt out Kitt’s extremely powerful and inventive pop-rock score. There are a couple too many shouty sung-through outbursts but she balances them with a warmth that makes the character’s pain all the more affecting.

Both 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.

Next to Normal is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 7 October. Get tickets here.