* I attended Next to Normal by Phoenix Players at the ANU Arts Centre as a guest
It’s a normal day in the Goodman household and it’s starting before dawn.
Diana Goodman (Janelle McMenamin) can’t sleep so she’s awake when her cheeky teenage son Gabe (Will Huang) arrives home well past curfew; she distracts ‘boring’ husband Dan (Grant Pegg) – woken by their voices – with the promise of sex; and she offers pathetic comfort to studies-stricken overachieving daughter Natalie (Kaitlin Nihill). As the sun rises and the day officially starts, Diana begins making sandwiches for her family but it’s obsessive and repetitive and obsessive and repetitive and obsessive and repetitive until she finds herself on the kitchen floor, still making the sandwiches. The family collectively recoils before Dan organises a trip to the psychopharmacologist (Joel Hutchings). Diana is bipolar depressive with delusional episodes, and so it has been for 16 years.
It’s been a normal day in the Goodman household.
And while this is how we’ve been introduced to Di’s feelings about her family, soon it’s revealed how her family is feeling and behaving. Daughter Natalie craves attention from her mother yet finds no sympathy for her and feels that Dan has equally abandoned her; she finds warmth in stoner music student Henry (Daniel Steer). Gabe is the golden child who supports his mother’s choices and desires to feel something; to not have her life dulled by medicine. Dan is depressed and tired; Dan knows he controls as much as he can without controlling anything important.
And the catch? (Potential spoiler so this is in white text – highlight over if you really want to read it.) One of these characters isn’t alive.
Next to Normal is powerful, relatable theatre. With a rock – and occasionally comedic – score there’s real risk that it could descend into the absurd or glib. It never does.
This is a musical that’s about competition for presence. Gabe and Natalie compete, unequally, to be noticed; to have their presence acknowledged. Dan seeks validation without ever asking for it. His desire for his presence to anchor Diana is palpable, yet it occurs, achingly, just once when she is in a particularly vulnerable position; he simply doesn’t have the strength of presence to help her. Doctors Fine and Madden use every trick in the book to help make Diana fulfill her presence – to make her present in the here and now, to not drag the past with her. And it’s about what can happen – to anyone, any demographic, any background – when someone is no longer present in our lives.
Each actor is genuinely strong in their roles but Pegg and McMenamin – Dan and Diana Goodman – is the duo that matters and they convince me. Together, the ensemble is musically extraordinary – the last song is perfect – but individually inconsistent. Consistently excellent Will Huang (High Fidelity) seems to be exercising restraint until his final songs in Act II which are powerful and aggressive. Grant Pegg (great in last year’s production of Evita) and Kaitlin Nihill (this year’s Beauty and the Beast) are strong throughout, while I would have liked to hear some stronger voices from Joel Hutchings and Daniel Steer who each appear to be solid but quiet.
Most perplexing of all is McMenamin. While her acting is utterly brilliant and she is a superb casting choice, I dismiss her musical voice early as weak, before being thrown (in a very good way) by powerful ballads – and so this rollercoaster continues throughout the night. I genuinely believe she is excellent – and I hear every few songs just how good she is – but I just don’t hear it throughout and it’s distracting.
For the dark themes it delicately explores, this isn’t a musical that preaches but one that is matter-of-fact throughout. Supporting this is a bare-bones set, which seems purposely designed for the skilled actors to help jumpstart what the scene calls for – a simple, slightly raised platform is easily Natalie’s bedroom in one scene and a pulsing nightclub in the next.
It’s 20 minutes too long – like West Side Story, all the action and the best songs are in Act I (that’s where the similarities end, I promise) – so I recommend a glass of wine in intermission.
But I’m nitpicking, of course. This is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve experienced in at least 18 months. Sure, it’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning, and that helps. But it’s the fact that – yet again – a local company has pulled off theatre like this with such aplomb that makes it unmissable.
Date: Friday, 8 July 2016
Where: ANU Arts Centre, Union Court
When: On until Saturday 23 July
Cost: An adult ticket is $35; see here for full price details
Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile