Sunday, 11 January 2015

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts, Hayes Theatre

Kicking off the year with the 2010 Putlitzer prize winning musical is not a bad way to start. A dramatic, emotive tale about a family dealing with the mother's depressive mental illness, it's not the most obviously fun summer musical you'd think of but ... on the other hand, opera learned long ago, there's nothing so musical as a good long mad scene. A small cast-show (the cast is only six - mum, dad, son, daughter plus daughter's boyfriend and one actor playing both shrinks), it's almost through-sung and benefits from the intimate staging as the characters are pushed close together to deal with, or not deal with, their situation at close terms.

This staging has a few interesting tricks up it's sleeve. The key production concept to have the sets in black with various setpieces drawn in by the cast in chalk is broadly metaphorically suggestive of the way the characters create and recreate the world around them, and that metaphor works strongly (particularly in the second act, when mum loses memories due to treatment and dad decides to recreate her history to remove the traumatic event). However, there are a couple of cases where sightlines haven't been clearly considered so we can see that an actor is clearly drawing something, but we can't see what it is (mostly on the forestage), plus if the actors sit in the chalk then they tend to spend the rest of the show with obvious chalkdust on them, that becomes kinda distracting. This does slightly suggest that the production (a transfer from Geelong), hasn't fully been rethought for the new space.

Performances are mostly strong. Key to a lot of the material is Natalie O'Donnell playing the mum, Diana - she has the grand arias like "You Don't Know" and "I miss the mountains" - we're drawn inside a character who could easily be pretty disturbing and alienating - instead finding her sympathetic, even while she's suicidal and disturbed. Anthony Harkin as Dan, her husband, has a plaintive sense of isolation as he seeks a way through to his wife. I found Kiane O'Farrel's Natalie, the daughter, to be the weak link in the cast - she wasn't always confident with her notes, and she didn't find a way to show what's inside Natalie's beligerant exterior very often - it's a bit too surface-level rather than something fully engaged. Similar is true of Brent Trotter's Gabe, who's a lot of surface and only a little bit of what's underneath. Clay Robert's Henry is genially charming and creates a nicely rounded character in only a few small scenes. Alex Rathberger rounds out the cast as both Diana's Doctors, Dr Fine and Dr Madden - again, there is not much to the role but he gives it energy and engagement in equal measure.

Is this worth the trip up to Sydney? I don't know - I'd hope that it might get picked up in Canberra sometime and a local production would probably iron out some of the inconsistencies of this production. There is strength here, particularly in the performance of O'Donnell. But there's also un-evenness lower down the cast list that means this is good rather than, as it could be, great.

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