“Next to Normal” at Donmar Warehouse

Mark Shenton in the West End
1 September 2023

London had to wait 35 years for the arrival of the Broadway hit Dreamgirls to reach the West End, so the mere 14 years we’ve had to wait for Next to Normal is, by comparison, fairly modest. But from the moment I first saw this wrenching musical about the impact of long-term depression on a bereaved mother and her family soon after it premiered on Broadway in 2009 – and I saw it a total of ten times in all – I was aching for a London production.


Jack Ofrecio and Eleanor Worthington-Cox.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


It’s a chamber musical – just six actors and six musicians – so it fits the Donmar Warehouse well. But it also has a huge emotional heft that is amplified in such an intimate space.

Even though it has a soaring and at times scorching rock score that could overpower the confines of this theatre, it also holds the intensity of the story it has to tell with a riveting clarity; there are times you could hear a pin drop. You can feel the audience leaning into it throughout, and you can hear the stifled sobs regularly.

The mother Diana’s search for treatment to erase the pain of her bipolar disorder leads her to ECT which becalms her but comes at a high price. And the show, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey set to music by Tom Kitt, restlessly and relentlessly lays it painfully bare.

The beauty of Next to Normal is that it doesn’t just show the impact on Diana, but also on her doting and loyal but helpless husband Dan and her daughter Natalie. “You don’t have to be happy at all / To be happy you’re alive” is one of the harsh lessons she eventually learns in the show’s concluding moments, which isn’t necessarily a very hopeful take-home message, but it’s a fearlessly true one. As with Groundhog Day, Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s masterpiece that recently finished its London run at the Old Vic, this is a show about surviving depression as well as suffering it.


Jack Wolfe as Gabe.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Director Michael Longhurst’s complete re-imagining of the show with an all-new creative team means we do not get a replica carbon-copy of Michael Greif’s original Broadway staging, but a production that doesn’t stint on its horrors – there’s a particularly gruelling and vivid representation of Diana’s suicide attempt that sees the stage flooded with blood. But it’s the wounds we don’t see that are even more painful, particularly as Natalie and Dan both start to exhibit symptoms that Diana has suffered, proving how pernicious mental health challenges can be for a wider family.

Although the show is often painful and heartbreaking to watch, it is propelled by an exhilarating and driving rock score that harnesses its emotions with a thrilling intensity. And Longhurst’s exemplary cast give it spectacular physical life. Broadway star Caissie Levy, who has appeared in the West End twice before in the original cast of Ghost and the transfer of Hair, is simply stunning as Diana, exposing her sincere but frazzled emotions with raw pain and power. And Jamie Parker as Dan clocks in his second major musical performance of the year, after recently leading the cast of the gorgeous original British musical The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Southwark Playhouse, providing a solid anchor to Diana’s desperation, but utterly helpless to relieve it.


Trevor Dion Nicholas and Caissie Levy.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Three extraordinary young actors play a younger generation. Eleanor Worthington-Cox – an original Matilda in the West End, for which she jointly won the Olivier Award in 2012 – plays Natalie who, like Matilda, suffers a kind of parental abandonment that is heartbreaking to watch. As her boyfriend Henry, Jack Ofrecio is a watchfully sympathetic presence.

But it is Jack Wolfe’s Gabe that threatens to steal the show. This fiery spit-ball of energy and longing soars vocally throughout, and his rock vocals in “I’m Alive” are a wonder. He has the Peter Pan look of a young Rupert Graves, and I predict he will have a huge future ahead, even if the character he is playing is denied one.

The rock credentials of the show are also regularly burnished by an onstage band – sometimes visible, sometimes hidden – led by musical director Nick Barstow on an upper platform of Chloe Lamford’s set that alternates between clinical and domestic scenes with ease and clarity.

Partly because it speaks to me so personally, I believe that Next to Normal is already the greatest musical of the 21st century so far. It’s a show that devastates me; and surveying the weeping members of the audience I’m surrounded by, I know I’m not alone.