Next to Normal review – Pulitzer-winning musical is given room to breathe in the West End

The musical moves to the West End from the Donmar Warehouse

The cast of Next to Normal, © Marc Brenner
The cast of Next to Normal, © Marc Brenner

In a recent interview, the Donmar Warehouse’s new artistic director Timothy Sheader admitted the intimate space is a tricky one when it comes to musicals.

It’s why, perhaps, the venue’s production of Next to Normal (Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s tale of a woman grappling with ill-health and the family around her), seems much more at ease now it has moved a few hundred metres down the road to the larger Wyndham’s Theatre in Covent Garden.

There are plenty of reasons why the space helps. It’s partly down to the fact that Kitt and Yorkey’s colossal rock musical tunes – like “I’m Alive”, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” or “I Am the One” – have a chance to soar right the way to the upper circle – the electricity coruscating through the auditorium has a chance to dissipate organically after each number.

Another reason for the show’s more pronounced sense of assuredness is the company, all of whom are returning from the Donmar run for a second stint in the show. Caissie Levy is Diana, the aforementioned woman haunted by the past and prescribed to a panoply of pills (“Pfizer’s Woman of the Year!”, as she’s described) to tackle her illness, supported by her beleaguered husband Dan (Jamie Parker, whose singing voice is streets ahead of where it was last year). Levy has scaled up her performance accordingly – Diana’s simmering frustration with her mental and emotional turbulence is caustic, flashes of humour only shining a flood light on the sea of darkness that surrounds the family. You can see why she was the original on-stage Elsa – any other year she’d have taken an Olivier Award for this performance.

Meanwhile, and in very different ways, Diana’s two children run amok: the elder Gabe played by Jack Wolfe, delivering showstopping numbers with effortless abandon, and the younger Natalie brought to life in a controlled, heartbreaking turn from Eleanor Worthington-Cox.

The space also grants the creative team a new lease of life – Chloe Lamford’s show home kitchen set, order in a world of disorder, feels much more imposing – upper rooms (housing the band) looming over the action. Issues with Tony Gayle’s sound design at the Donmar are completely cleared up – every number sounds note- and word-perfect.

On the larger canvas, director Michael Longhurst allows the weight of betrayal, the exultation of connection and the soaring jubilation of familial happiness to bump into the top of the rafters. The material itself still has shortcomings – its treatment of mental illness feels more slapdash and non-specific than it needs to be (highlighting the musical is already showing its age against the backdrop of a fast-paced subject matter). Even so, it may have been marvellous at the Donmar, but it’s a must-see now.

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Next to Normal

Closed: 07 October 2023

Next to Normal

Final performance: 21 September 2024