Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by David Harrison
Music Direction by Julie Whiting
Brisbane Arts Theatre
Season 23 February to 23 March. Bookings: www.artstheatre.com.au or (07) 3369 2344
Next to Normal is the story of Diana, a mother, who struggles with a worsening bipolar disorder and the effects that this illness and its management are having on her family. This rock musical also addressed the issues of grief, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry all while trying to live a ‘normal’ suburban life.
This was the most confronting show I have ever seen, as Diana plummets to rock bottom after years of medical concoctions which have not helped either her bipolar, delusions, or depression.
Carly Skelton, who took out the Bille Brown award for Best Emerging Artist at the 2018 Matilda Awards, as Diana Goodman, was strong in her role and took the audience on her journey and perspective of how life was and had been for 17 years. Adam Bartlett as Dan Goodman, the husband, was equally strong in his role, counterbalancing and trying to manage his manic wife’s episodes, and keeping the family together. Both were accomplished vocalists and belted out the rock numbers. I particularly liked Skelton’s rendition of I Miss the Mountains.
As the musical begins, the audience is introduced to what seems like a normal suburban family of two parents and two teenagers, a boy and girl. Diana was packing the kids off to school – the boy (Gabe) is a typical teenage boy needing to be reminded of everything and the girl (Natalie) is described as a genius, head never out of a book. Let There Be Light and Just Another Day are the first two songs by Dan, Natalie, Diana and Gabe, finishing with Diana making sandwiches on the floor, Dan picking her up to go off to the doctor again, and Natalie rolling her eyes at Mum’s ‘episode’.
It was not until well into the first Act that it was revealed that Gabe is not actually real, but part of Diana’s delusions. This comes to a head at the dinner table where Natalie’s new boyfriend, (Henry) has been invited for dinner and Diana brings a birthday cake to the table. Natalie asks whose birthday was it, and it was revealed that there was an older brother who had died. This leads into the songs He’s Not Here (Dan), You Don’t Know (Diana) and I’m Alive (Gabe).
Hannah Kassulke (Natalie Goodman) and Christopher Batkin (Gabe Goodman) were great in their roles. Kassulke played the troubled teenager, who was spiralling out of control without realising, deciding to try her mother’s pills and goes on a bit of a bender. Thankfully she has Henry (Tristan Ham) to catch her when she falls, even though he is a bit of a stoner. Batkin reprises his role as Gabe in this production, having played it for another company, and wears him like a second skin. He was so convincing that it was hard to think of him as a ghost.
Isaac Tibbs (Doctor Madden) is Diana’s newest psychologist, in a long line of medical specialists that Diana has gone to over the years. Dr Madden, however, doesn’t believe in medication and suggests ECT after a number of therapy sessions. This little procedure brings with it, its own after-effects and literally rips the family apart. How Could I Ever Forget (Dan/Diana) was a poignant song that describes this low as Diana comes home from hospital, as was I’m Here sung by Gabe as he realised he was going to be wiped from memory.
The stage was well done with four levels, giving the illusion of a multi-storied house and was used to great effect. The criss-cross decoration on the back stage, which was lit by coloured lights, was suggestive to me of the synapses in the brain. The hard-hitting songs were brilliantly accompanied by an orchestra led by Julie Whiting.
I felt sad at the end of this musical. Psychiatry/psychology tries its best, but in the end, it is all a vast experiment playing with someone’s brain and attempting to get them back to ‘normal’. Diana bounces from lows to highs, flushes her pills down the loo, attempts suicide. Dan tries to hold it together, but he was also in need of assistance and has shut down that part of their life which has led to Diana’s illness. Natalie just wears the brunt of it all as stoically as a teenager can but doesn’t have the mechanisms to be able to deal with it. All this was due to grief and the accompanying guilt of two young parents that they couldn’t save their baby boy.
I did enjoy this production. I can see why it has won so many awards. The cast is stupendous having been ably directed by David Harrison, bringing to life the raw emotions that would be being experienced by those involved. Next to Normal will not be for everyone, but it was an exceptionally interesting way of presenting these issues which affect so many people, and perhaps starting a conversation.