The Normal Heart at The National Theatre – review

Larry Kramer’s  blistering attack on prejudice and complacency in the early days of AIDS epidemic

★★★★

Production photo from The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
Ben Daniels & Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The Normal Heart, written in 1985 as the AIDS epidemic was finally beginning to be acknowledged, is based on author Larry Kramer’s own experience of this period. It’s a play that highlights prejudice and ignorance, fighting for what is right, and what it’s like to live in a time of plague.

The lead character Ned is semi-autobiographical and it’s great to see Ben Daniels given the starring role. He’s an excellent actor who always delivers on stage or screen. These days is probably best known for playing Princess Margaret’s husband in The Crown but in this production, directed by Dominic Cooke, he shows how he can carry a whole show.

This production was stopped in its tracks by the COVID -19 pandemic. So, inevitably, now that it’s finally made it onto the Olivier stage, we view it in the light of our experience of what’s happened over the last year and a half. We recognise the authorities’ slowness to respond to what was going on, albeit nothing like the fatal head-in-the-sand attitude to the early deaths within New York’s gay community. In the unwillingness of people to do what’s necessary to save lives, we can see a parallel with some gay men back then refusing to modify their sex lives. We are also familiar with wide-ranging and sometimes wild theories about causes and cures that have since gone by the wayside. In the play, you get the sense of bewilderment and panic about where this so-called ‘gay plague’ has come from and how it’s being spread.

What’s also happened between the postponement of this production and now is the joyous but devastating TV series It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies. That was set in the UK rather than New York and took us into the 90s but anyone who has seen it will recognise the way some newly liberated gay men became highly promiscuous during the 70s and 80s, and again the slowness to react, and the crushing sadness of friends dying all around, and the reconciliation between some parents, especially mothers, and their dying sons.

The Normal Heart is much more overtly political than It’s A Sin. It might be better compared with Albert CamusThe Plague, in which an outbreak of bubonic plague follows a similar trajectory and is intended as an analogy for the rise of Nazism.

The Normal Heart follows closely the developments in early 1980s New York: the early deaths, the uncertainties, one doctor flagging up the concern, and the forming of an organisation intended to warn gay men of the danger, help those that contracted AIDs, and pursue the authorities for support.

It’s hard to know what’s more depressing: people faced with the possibility of contracting a fatal disease still carrying on with a reckless lifestyle, or the authorities and media trying to pretend it wasn’t happening because this seemed to be only to do with gay men, and not something they wanted to be associated with. So both familiar and yet still shocking.

Ned is instantly at odds with his fellow campaigners. He is all for directness and shouting from the rooftops in order to pressurise those in power into action, and his fellow gay men to refrain from sex. I guess he’s the kind of person who these days would be gluing himself to the motorway. Others, some still in the closet, argue for a more softly softly approach.

Humour, pain, anger and compassion

Because the abrasive Ned is never afraid to tell it like it is, he has some barnstorming moments, but the other actors in Ned’s circle including Luke Norris, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter, take hold of their well drawn, varied characters and fill this evening with humour, pain, anger and compassion.

Production photo by Helen Maybanks showin Liz Carr in The Normal Heart at the Ntional Theatre London in 2021
Liz Carr in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Liz Carr plays Doctor Brookner who first notices the increase in this distinctive illness and goes from compassionate but objective medic to militant campaigner, with a blistering speech in the second act. ‘How does it always happen that all of the idiots are always on your team?’ she asks her opponents.

Ned is also in conflict with his straight brother Ben, given a nicely nuanced performance by Robert Bowman, who shows the love he feels for his brother while barely able to disguise his homophobia.

Not only does Kramer give the various members of the group the space to express their differing feelings and opinions, he digs deep into his main protagonist’s character. Despite all the risks of intimacy, the previously lonely Ned falls in love and suddenly the story of this epidemic becomes very personal. Love is what makes Ned a human  ding rather than a simple polemicist

The end is heartbreaking, compounded by the misery of the latter stages of the disease and, even after their death, the continuing prejudice in the treatment of their bodies. If you are not in tears by the end, I would question whether you have a heart.

Although the setting is specifically the gay community of New York in the early 80s, the behaviour it shows can be seen again and again in many other situations. We’re reminded by Ned in the play how governments turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. And if we look around today, we could take the example of the way a male-dominated, misogynistic judicial system consistently fails to take effective action against the number of rapes and other violence against women. Or the way elderly people in care homes were treated during the COVID -19 outbreak (see Help by Jack Thorne on All4). Or the daily discrimination against black people (see my review of Typical).

A word about the set. The Olivier at the National Theatre has been converted into a theatre-in-the round. The stage is a circle with a thin light all the way round the circumference, perhaps suggesting the way gay men were seen at that time as separate from the rest of society. It’s pretty much bare apart from a few benches so this production is all about the acting, and that to be frank is a relief after many productions I’ve seen in this large space where the set design has dwarfed the play. The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, also has a flame burning high up throughout. I took this to represent the kind of eternal flame you find at a tomb of the unknown soldier, as if to say these thousands who died through the prejudice and ignorance should not be forgotten.

To make this truly in-the-round, there are seats on what would normally be the stage, though it was my impression, sitting in the circle that the actors faced to the traditional front the majority of the time. A word of warning: there are lighting towers positioned around edge of the circular stage. These will inevitably give you a restricted view if you sit in the right or left stalls and circle. I know this to be true because a delayed train caused me to arrive at the last moment, so I was sitting to the side for the first act before I was able to take my central seat.

The Normal Heart is a deeply moving play, with scintillating, witty, powerful dialogue that deserves this well acted revival.

Revision made on 1 October 2021 to add more about the significance of love and the universality of the message

The Normal Heart is performing at the National Theatre until 6 November 2021.

Click to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre

Superb Cast Make Follies A Night To Treasure

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Follies at the National Theatre reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Follies at the National Theatre. Photo Johan Persson

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is a difficult musical. To carry it off, you need an extraordinarily good cast. Fortunately the National Theatre production has one.

Imelda Staunton is now the preeminent West End musical star, certainly for the more mature roles. Her performance as Sally consolidates her reputation by offering a perfect, beautifully acted and sung portrayal of sadness and illusion. That would be joy enough but just as perfect is Janie Dee. In the role of the cynical but brittle Phyllis, her voice, her acting and her dancing reminded me that she belongs in the highest ranks of musical performers.

Dee gets the most laughs with her songs Could I Leave You? and The Story Of Lucy And Jessie. When she finally crumbles, her performance is every bit as poignant as Staunton’s, who expresses her damaged character through the songs Don’t Look At Me, Too Many Mornings and Losing My Mind.

The musical is set in 1971 in a condemned theatre where former showgirls from Weismann’s Follies, a series of Ziegfeld-style musical reviews from the inter-War years, are gathering for a reunion. Attention centres on two of the women and their husbands. We discover that both couples have relationship problems which date back to their Follies days. This is cleverly told by showing us the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves.

Other women reveal their illusions about their lives and relive their glory moments, again accompanied by their younger selves. More top class performances include those of Josephine Barstow, Dawn Hope and Tracie Bennett.

Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee in Follies reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee in Follies. Photo Johan Persson

Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton are magnificent

Why do I say Follies is a ‘difficult’ musical?  There is very little in the way of plot. The exploration of the main characters’ unhappy present relationships and past regrets is told for a substantial part of it as a series of book or character songs.

Sondheim’s music is complex and deep with emotion but, knowing that I was watching a production that runs for two hours and ten minutes without an interval, there was a moment when I wondered whether it was ever going to move along.

Just when it seemed Follies was getting nowhere, we were treated to impressive song-and-dance numbers like Who’s That Woman and a series of pastiches of pre-war Broadway musical songs, excellently choreographed by Bill Deamer. They provided some much needed fun and spectacle.

Follies comes to a climax with Loveland, a collection of Broadway parodies in which each of the main characters sings about their ‘folly’, whether of youth or maturity.

The production, directed by Dominic Cooke, does the musical proud with its 37 strong cast and 21 piece orchestra. The large Olivier stage is used well by designer Vicki Mortimer to create the crumbling theatre complete with a flickering neon sign and, when it provides the setting for the more glitzy Broadway numbers, it gives an apt visual representation of the contrast between past and present. The space is great for the song-and-dance numbers but too big for the book songs but that is the paradox of this brilliant, broken musical.

Click on this link to watch my YouTube review at One Minute Theatre Reviews or watch it below

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies runs until 3 January 2018 at the National Theatre.

A Kendall commented on my YouTube review: “The criticisms of James Goldman’s book as having little ‘plot’ are shown to be irrelevant when you have this good a production, because what it becomes is, in effect, a meditation on ageing, the death of dreams, the sense of regret, guilt and much more. That is why it draws people in so very deeply to it. And in that sense, it is to musical theatre what some of Wagner’s mature works are to opera.”

It’s a good point. Maybe we can too hung up on stories in musicals and should sometimes just enjoy the mood of the work.