Aug 31, 2023

The week in theatre: A Mirror; Next to Normal

Almeida; Donmar Warehouse, LondonSam Holcroft’s unsettling new play about censorship features a menacing performance from Jonny Lee Miller, while a musical drama exploring bipolar disorder is edgily transfixing

Who will take over the National Theatre when Rufus Norris leaves in 2025? Most often rumoured as a strong contender – and rightly so – is Indhu Rubasingham, who has set the Kiln in north London alight. Yet I wonder whether the best solution, there as at the RSC, may not be a combination – two people driving such a big beast would allow each time to direct as well as administrate. My choice beside Rubasingham would be Rupert Goold. Under his artistic directorship, the Almeida is unmissable.

Sam Holcroft’s new play shows why. Not because it is perfect but because it will send audiences out either raging or invigorated. A Mirror has evident designs on its audience and Jeremy Herrin’s production teases them out, skittishly, darkly.

Max Jones’s design is, like most things in the evening, misleading. It suggests that spectators will be absorbed in a beaming piece of immersive theatre. The foyer has a bridal book for guests to sign. The auditorium is looped with fairy lights; some seats have been replaced by spindly chairs; a table displays a tiered white cake. All this is a sugary facade.

A Mirror is made up of multiple reflections and a subject with a double punch. Plays within plays. Actors within actors (there is a particularly good reveal right at the end). Holcroft, who eight years ago cheered me up no end with the food-slinging farcicality of Rules for Living, has drawn on a visit to North Korea to write about censorship. Yet this is also – subtly – a play about the best way of telling the truth. Is reality best shown by copying from life, or by selective recreation? A man makes his first play by exactly recording the overheard exchanges of his neighbours – among them a sex worker and a compulsive masturbator. Is this art or simply transcription? The sceptic is a censor in an authoritarian state – in which Romeo and Juliet is banned: he wants to make uplifting stories.

This could so easily have ended up as an evening trapped in its own apparatus and become miasmic. Yet Herrin drives the action with absolute clarity. Jonny Lee Miller, in leather gloves and a peculiar blazer, is a muscularly silky censor who swills words round his mouth as if he were savouring prey. Geoffrey Streatfeild, so plausible as a revered dramatist, bounces around as a balloon of self-satisfaction. Micheal Ward – of Empire of Light and Top Boy – makes a tremendous stage debut: authoritative and modest, powerfully suggesting integrity without sanctimoniousness. Tanya Reynolds slides from tongue-tied comedy to anguish. When she unfreezes, new blood seems to flow through her.

Meanwhile, in what may be thought of as a post-pandemic reaction, psychiatry has been taking to the stage. Last week, The Effect asked whether extremes of elation were more likely to be produced by an emotional collision or by a drug. Now, Next to Normal, first seen off-Broadway in 2008, dramatises the entangled effect of a catastrophe on someone with bipolar disorder. And sets the jangled consequences to music.

Michael Longhurst’s production, which has both glare and hopeful buoyancy, is powered by his ability to make a subject all-encompassing. Importantly, having directed the tremendous Caroline, or Change, he is fluent in the ways of new, realistic musicals. Tom Kitt’s score engulfs the stage in a rollercoaster of rock. Anxiety, dread, sudden out-of-the-blues exhilaration are everywhere and unremitting: this is a sung-through show. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are sharp and ambitious. What is missing is a sense of the unconscious, the just out of sight, the more delicate disruptions: little is left unsaid and unexpressed. What is strongly transmitted is the transfixing nature of bipolarity.

When a long-married, comfortably off mother of two begins to prepare a packed lunch by spreading out a whole loaf of sliced bread like tarot cards on the floor, her husband knows her meds need adjusting. When she sees the doctor (versatile Trevor Dion Nicholas), he seems to loom over her like a predatory evangelist. Music softens slightly into sighing strings as energy drains away in a depressive phase; then pounds in again, heavy on drums and bass: urgent, ever-present.

The highs are rendered by the cast with Cheshire cat smiles, repetitively yelling “good, good, good” as they rattle pill boxes like maraccas. The sleekly bland kitchen, designed by Chloe Lamford, spins round as the entire family are trapped in confusion. Above the stage, screens open occasionally to let us glimpse the band, the soul of the play – and occasionally a fugitive figure (the details of the plot should come as a surprise).

It is hard to imagine this better staged – or performed. As the heroine, Caissie Levy is unflinchingly acute even when distraught. In the more reactive role of the loyal and afflicted husband, Jamie Parker is exactly right, whether overcheery or scrunched up in despair; his younger counterpart (there is some overneat paralleling of characters) is nicely caught by Jack Ofrecio. What promise there is, too, in Eleanor Worthington-Cox’s tremulous troubled daughter, at her most vivid when she thinks she is disappearing. And in the remarkable presence of Jack Wolfe, with flickering eyes and smile, like a fallen angel: never has a repeated yell of “I’m alive” sounded so menacing.

Star ratings (out of five)A Mirror ★★★★Next to Normal ★★★

A Mirror is at the Almeida, London, until 23 September

Next to Normal is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 7 October

Almeida; Donmar Warehouse, LondonA MirrorNext to Normal★★★★★★★