Review / ‘Next to Normal’ moving and thought-provoking

‘Next to Normal’ – Phoenix Players, at ANU Arts Centre Until  July 23. Reviewed by Ian McLean.

“NEXT to Normal” is a powerful work of drama. 

Kaitlin Nihill, left, Grant Pegg, Janelle McMenamin and Will Huang in “Next to Normal”. Photo by Michael Moore

Kaitlin Nihill, left, Grant Pegg, Janelle McMenamin and Will Huang in “Next to Normal”. Photo by Michael Moore

It is not the standard fare of musical theatre but ironically well suited to this form of artistic expression.   The emotionally complex story explores the dramatic outcomes which occur when a seemingly ordinary family of four are confronted with the realisation that the mother suffers from a bipolar condition which incorporate delusional episodes.

The small cast of just six is strong throughout.   Janelle McMemamin is an understated and vulnerable Diana (the mother) who captures the torn soul of her character with sensitivity and compassion.   She sings with strength and conviction, if anything she could have exhibited even more of the pain she consistently felt.

Grant Pegg as the husband Dan is totally effective as he works through a wide gamut of emotions whilst also needing to portray that he is the head of the family and its guide.

The consistently versatile Will Huang was perfectly cast as Gabriel, the ghost of the son who died at just eight months old.   He captured the essence of the character particularly well and succeeded in drawing sympathy and a clear level of understanding for his plight and the role he played in the illness being suffered by his mother.

Joel Hutchins established his character roles (playing both Doctor parts) with great credibility and Daniel Steer, as Henry, resisted the temptation to become a caricature boyfriend, instead portraying a character of independent thought and action.

The acting credits for the night however belonged to Kaitlin Nihill as daughter Natalie.   She captured the pathos of the neglected daughter in a gut-wrenching performance that seems to have drawn the best from a young actress who has always demonstrated fine potential but who has seemingly not previously been sufficiently challenged.   This was a breakthrough performance and certainly her moment – a somewhat spine-chilling interpretation.

The stark scaffolding set aided the bleak story line.   The criss-cross lines on the backdrop seemed to appropriately represent the fractured fault lines of Diana’s mind.

There were a couple of disturbing issues which irritated and annoyed.   Whilst the band itself was excellent (all credit to Rhys Madigan for excellent work both vocally and instrumentally) the mixed front of house balance between band and cast, particularly in the opening scenes, was dreadful with dialogue incomprehensible.   Thankfully this did settle but vocal mic cues were consistently late throughout the show which really bugs me!

Back to the overwhelming positive and lighting by Liam Ashton was terrifically atmospheric and moving.   Director Kelda McManus has done an excellent job with obvious passion for her work.   There are 9 stage entrance points and each is utilised to great advantage to ensure consistent movement and variation and a fast show pace.

Tunes don’t stick in the mind but that doesn’t matter, this is a production of great artistic merit.   Phoenix Players have taken a risk in departing from mainstream musical fare and all credit to the company.   This Pulitzer Prize winning show is moving, thought provoking and emotional.   Even better, at about $25 a ticket Phoenix Players have provided an avenue for access to fine quality live theatre at a most affordable admission.   Don’t miss!

One Response to “Review / ‘Next to Normal’ moving and thought-provoking”

  1. July 11, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    Sadly, this is the second review of this brilliant show by Phoenix Players that has demonstrated such terrible ignorance of mental illness and how it manifests itself. I thought for a moment the reviewer had actually understood the performance of Janelle McMenamin in the central role of Diana when he said “understated and vulnerable” but then he blew it by adding “if anything she could have exhibited even more of the pain she consistently felt”. One of the grave problems our society faces, and one of the reasons this show is so important, is that mentail illness still carries great shame and embarrassment for the sufferer. This leads them to work very hard to suppress rather than resolve their anxieties, anguish, grief and pain.

    I noted with great interest from the show program that Grant Pegg, who so excellently portrays Diana’s husband, is a medical professional with experience in the mental health space. I’ve no doubt he has passed on his insights to McMenamin and the Director in forming the character of Diana. I watched the show quite frankly expecting the usual “wild and crazy” portrayal of Diana as a “total lunatic” as actors often do with characters suffering from mental illness. I was both amazed and delighted that she absolutely nailed it.

    Then I read this review and another by an equally ignorant journalist and it makes me so sad that Phoenix Players’ bravery in bringing this show to Canberra audiences is undermined by such uneducated and uninformed opinions but it just heightens the need for people to see the show and understand its significance and credibility.

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