‘Normal’ makes the abnormal relatable

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Holly Ross as Poppy. Photo: Lightbulb Studio.

Theatre / “Normal”, Canberra Youth Theatre. At the Canberra Theatre, October
22-23. Reviewed by JOHN LOMBARD.

MOST of us like to fit in. For a teenager, being different can be cataclysmic.

For ordinary teenager Poppy, that social fear becomes an apocalyptic reality when she develops Tourette’s-like spasms that are incurable and seemingly contagious. Poppy is isolated, not only by the disease, but by community paranoia and blame.

This bleak play by Katie Pollock draws on the true story of the “The Town that Caught Tourette’s”, where in 2011 teenage girls from the same American high school began to show Tourette’s-like twitches and outbursts.

The intersection of gender and mass malady is a rich subject, evoking the dismissive catch-all “female hysteria”, the wrathful children of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, and even the absurd contagion of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”. Pollock abstains from a definitive explanation, with toxic waste, family strife, divine wrath, guilt and even social revolt explored as causes for the epidemic.

When Poppy meets a psychologist, we expect a journey towards truth and, if not a cure, a new normal. However, the adults around Poppy are self-serving, and Poppy is not a hero, but a confused victim adrift in a situation they do not understand and cannot adapt to.

Canberra Youth Theatre performers McKenzie Battye-Smith, Jemma Collins, Holly Ross and Elektra Spencer play recognisable characters with wry insight, and communicate the mysterious disease with strong physicality. Director Luke Rogers emphasises character through movement, and keeps the story flowing by mixing up the blocking. The young actors did not quite reach the raw emotion demanded for some of the pivotal confrontations, which made these less believable than they could have been.

While Poppy’s situation was unusual, her conflicts – with her mother, her friends, her desires, her anxieties – felt normal for a teenager. A possible psychological cause for Poppy’s tics was at odds with the grave social causes of the epidemic. If one teenager has the condition because her religious mother abuses her, why should we care if Poppy feels bad about shoplifting that one time? While Poppy’s normality made her a good point-of-view character, as the stakes mounted, her passivity and self-obsession became frustrating.

“Normal” is a vivid depiction of teenage life under pressure, with Rogers drawing textured performances from the young cast, in a play that makes the abnormal relatable.

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