A rock musical about mental illness, suicide and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)? It's hard to imagine a more unfunny premise. But Next to Normal, being performed at Beenleigh's Pavilion Theatre until 14 May, strikes the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, provoking both tears and laughter through the twists and turns of an ultimately uplifting tale.
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the original production of Next to Normal premiered on Broadway in 2009, breaking new ground in its exploration of topics once considered taboo. It offers an unflinching look at the impacts of mental illness, not just upon the affected individual, but upon their family and friends. I love that it grabs audience members by the guts, demanding from them a visceral, rather than intellectual, response.
Michelle Dagan, as Diana, explores a box of memories. Image courtesy Phoenix Ensemble.
I was deeply moved when I saw Next to Normal for the first time, performed then by the Oscar Theatre Company three years ago at QPAC's Cremorne Theatre. It was a triumphant and polished production, but the nature of the venue meant I felt one step removed from the action.
In the close confines of Beenleigh's Pavilion Theatre, home to the Phoenix Ensemble and commonly known as The Tin Shed, there was nowhere to hide. Here, director David Harrison has turned the theatre into a 360 degree space, as Next to Normal is performed in the round. 'I desperately wanted to have the audience very close so that they may witness the loves, pains, joys and losses of these characters,' he explains. 'To offer people a chance to be amongst the story, rather than just watch it.' Indeed, this aspect of the production helped create a deep connection with the audience several of whom, like me, were moved to tears by the end of the first act.
Nathan Pamenter, as Dr Madden, struggles to manage his patient's deteriorating mood. Image courtesy Phoenix Ensemble.
Performing in the round can be a confronting experience for actors, as they are constantly exposed, with the audience directly in their line of vision. However, this cast admirably rose to the challenge. Wonderfully expressive performances were delivered by Michelle Dagan (Diana) who played a woman descending into the depths of a depressive episode, and her husband Adam Bartlett (Dan) who unfailingly had to pick up the pieces. Other strong performances were given by Christopher Batkin (Gabe) and Jackie Turner (Natalie), along with Mitchell Walsh who shone in his role as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and Nathan Pamenter as Drs Madden and Fine.
The sparse set, which featured little more than a table and chairs most of the time, was wholly appropriate. This minimalist treatment amplified the effects of the rocking live music from the orchestra (directed by Julie Whiting) and lighting (by Phil Holmes), creating an engrossing, and emotionally engaging experience.
There's an awful lot to like about the venue, The Tin Shed, too. Situated within the Beenleigh Showgrounds, it's small, intimate and (crucially) air-conditioned. There's free onsite parking, light snacks and drinks at the adjoining Lucky's Bar, and passionate theatre buffs working on the stage and behind the scenes.
And did I mention this was an amateur production? While amateur productions are typically associated with more passion than polish, this aspect, too, contributed to the raw and real feeling of Next to Normal. If you haven't yet had an opportunity to experience this ground-breaking rock musical, here is a perfect opportunity to do so.
Adam Bartlett in Next to Normal. Image courtesy Phoenix Ensemble.