Next to Normal – life in the family trenches

Husband and wife Dan (Richard Neame) and Diane( Emma Leon) share a rare moment of calm in Next to Normal.

Every so often, a show comes along that rocks your socks off. Last night I attended a performance by the Auckland Music Theatre of the musical Next to Normal as a fundraiser for the Matt Skellern Bipolar Trust. The trust was set up after Matt took his own life two years ago after struggling with bipolar disorder. Matt’s father Graham and sister Emma established the trust with the hope of inspiring and finding effective support for people with bipolar disorder, and to increase public awareness and reduce the associated stigma.

Prior to the show, Graham spoke of Matt’s fears and how he had kept his disorder hidden from his friends and the battles they had faced and shared as a family. Our society is still not very caring or understanding towards mental health yet we all can slip at any time – Graham’s hope is that the more people understand, the more people will be supported.

Then three very lovely people shared their stories and a brief insight into their journey; Aubrey Quinn, who was one of the spokespersons fronting the 2007 Like Minds Like Mine campaign, the vivacious and gorgeous Samantha Reynolds in a cool red hat, and David Patterson who showed that great rappers can wear woollen vests. Each in their own and wonderfully creative way shared their journey, and the literal high and lows of living with bipolar disorder.

By this time, the audience was pumped – we were caring and sharing and ready for the show, but I had no idea what lay ahead as the cast came on stage and belted out the first chord. The premise is simple – Next To Normal follows a mother struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and the effect her condition has on her family. That doesn’t really prepare you for the intensity that lies ahead – this is no happy family musical – it is bare to the bones, heart-wrenching and utterly engrossing window into the confusion, despair and frustration of a family dealing (or not dealing) with bipolar disorder. In fact, I would warn that it can be a little triggering if you have any experience with these issues – I was in tears only 10 minutes in as some of the situations hit home. The show itself has had quite a journey and I was interested to read in this New York Times review how the show advanced from its original off-Broadway production.

The show itself has won 3 Tonys and it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming just the eighth musical in history to do so.

The cast and production were outstanding in their performances, which could have easily veered over the top, and all had fantastic singing voices. Moreover, they all suited their roles – perhaps a result of being an amateur production but they seemed like real people – not the over-the-top pretty or handsome that is the normal domain of big productions.

I did find it confronting at times, but I’d rather go to a musical where I am still thinking and talking about it the next day than one that is a piece of fluff that you can barely recall a week later. It runs until November 8th so get along to see it. More info here.

The trust will use the money raised at the event to set up a website, if you are interested in supporting them, some more information can be found here.

The Creative Team:
Direction: Craig Rodgers
Musical Direction: Patrick Kelly
Assistant Music Direction: Mark Bradley
Choreography/movement: Lexi Clare
Production Manager: Melissa Carroll

Cast List:
Diana: Emma Leon
Dan: Richard Neame
Gabe: Chris Wardle
Natalie: Nicolette Nes
Henry: Samyson Robinson
Doctor Madden/Doctor Fine: Chris Moore

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