Tag Archives: Nick Barstow

“Next to Normal” at the Donmar Warehouse

Fifteen years after success in New York, this hard-hitting musical from Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt has a London première to be proud of. Under the musical direction of Nick Barstow, the show sounds great while director Michael Longhurst excels in sensitivity. The performances are superb, among the best I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, the production is so strong that it might be better than the show itself.

Next to Normal’s subject matter is mental illness. The lead protagonist, Diana, suffers from bipolar disorder; we see her treatment with drugs, therapy and even ECT. As if that weren’t emotive enough, Diana’s problems are connected to the death of her baby son Gabe who, imagined grown, haunts her as a psychotic hallucination.

It’s an important topic, although obviously not one that is easy to watch, let alone perform – Caissie Levy, who takes this lead role, is a marvel and her voice is excellent. Of course, there’s plenty of angst in her songs, but the score also has variety and Levy manages to inject surprisingly light touches. This is a woman living with her illness, who – making sandwiches and looking after the family – has to carry on… somehow. The detail in the performance, as with the care in Yorkey’s book, feels authentic and engaging.

The show only gets more impressive because the focus is almost as much on Diana’s family as her. More detail – a lot of it distressing – comes with the always-excellent Jamie Parker, who plays the husband. And there’s Diana’s daughter, Natalie, who ironically feels like an “invisible girl” and has plenty of problems of her own.

Jack Ofrecio and Eleanor Worthington-Cox

Eleanor Worthington-Cox takes the role of Natalie and is joined by Jack Wolfe as her deceased brother. It is a huge testament to both, that, despite how fraught the piece is, they show their roles as, somehow, regular teenagers. Given that one isn’t real, that really is remarkable! Completing a trio of younger performers is Jack Ofrecio, who plays Natalie’s boyfriend and is also excellent. The level of sophistication in both music and lyrics is consistent for these roles and the performances just as good.

Jack Wolfe

Next to Normal is far from a teen drama, but the depictions of youth are extraordinary. The pressures on all three younger characters, particularly interesting when we consider one as a figment of an older person’s imagination (who even gets the best number), raise questions about nature and nurture. While showing the impact of long-term illness, Natalie and her beau have regular problems, too. It all adds up to great drama.

Up until the end, it is all pretty much faultless – if hard-going. And resolving a story like this is always going to be a problem, especially given how in-depth and intense the show is. Maybe we should be grateful the end isn’t tragic… but Diana’s decision to abandon treatment is a shock. While she considers giving up medication more than once, the final decision to reject help seems reckless to the point of being disturbing. Maybe it is best to point out that it doesn’t quite make sense dramatically. It’s an odd end to a fantastic show.


Until 7 October 2023

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Space Between – A Musical Short”

This sweet little treat showcases the considerable talents of David Hunter and Caroline Kay. Three songs characterise a couple under strain because of Covid-19. Forced to live apart, they break up during lockdown.

That Hunter and Kay haven’t met face to face is amazing. There’s a good sense of a long-established relationship between their characters, despite the brevity of the show. Likewise, that neither has met musical director Nick Barstow is remarkable: the songs, as well as their voices, sound fantastic.

Musically and lyrically, The Space Between owes a lot to Jason Robert Brown. That’s not a bad source of inspiration. It might have been nice to get more sense of a London setting, but the three numbers are strong and the writing has a realism and humour that balances sentimentality.

Kay’s character is a little better developed. Maybe I just took a dislike to the misplaced irony of her partner listing ‘Her’ on his phone? But the piece is packed with detail – it even tackles the (increasing) problem of showing a series of video calls well. Including guest appearances, as friends and family, is a brilliant idea.

Impressive all around and, at just 15 minutes, easy to listen and watch again and again…which I will.

Available on You Tube

“Much Ado About Nothing” at Gray’s Inn Hall

Antic Disposition are an acclaimed theatre company who tour to gorgeous locations. Having shown this neat new production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy in English cathedrals and at open-air venues in France – so the show is in tip-top form –their London sojourn marks a return visit for them to this beautiful Tudor hall. The location, alongside a production full of fun, makes the evening easy to recommend.

Inspired by the company’s travels, the play is relocated to France after the end of World War II. The move makes the most of an Anglo-French cast and aims to inject the bonhomie of a liberated nation with tricolour bunting and café style seating for some audience members. Several bilingual performers are impressive but there are some strong accents deployed by all the cast and some lines are lost. It’s a pity not to hear everything but all the performers make up for this with energy and élan. The trio of Beatrice, Hero and Margaret are played by Chiraz Aïch, Floriane Andersen and Molly Miles who make an impressively close team. Stiff upper lips abound for the English soldiers who come wooing: an idea that adds comedy to the performances from Nicolas Osmond as Benedict and Alexander Varey as Claudio, while resulting in a more prominent role than some productions allow for Theo Landey’s excellent Don Pedro.

French flair also aids the role of Constable Dogsberry (let’s be honest, those scenes are sometimes tiresome) whose malapropisms may now recall Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo ‘Allo although programme notes say the source is Jacques Tati. Either way lots of physical comedy allows Louis Bernard to get laughs and win over the audience. The company’s founders, Ben Horslen and John Risebero, co-direct the show with an eye on entertainment. An excellent score from Nick Barstow fills out both period and location, while calling on the ensemble to pick up their instruments further illustrates their talents and piles on winning charm.

Until 1 September 2018


Photo by Scott Rylander

“Princess Ida” at the Finborough Theatre

Saturday’s matinee at the Finborough Theatre saw Chelsea fans in the bar downstairs mix with operetta buffs coming to see a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida. My fears that football cheers would drown out the music were unfounded – a strong cast of singers was more than a match for the Blues.

Director Phil Willmott scores his first goal with his revision of the piece; trimmed and tidied so well that only a real purist could take offence. Princess Ida is a less popular work from the G & S canon (I’d like to think because of its old fashioned sexism) and not as funny as their best, with the satire resting too firmly in its day, but Willmott makes the work light and snappy. We have more princes trying to marry Ida, yet fewer characters overall and are missing a King. The plot is simpler and sillier.

Focusing more on courtship than courtiers, alongside a beefed up role for Ida’s father, now a guardian, the roles are a delight when they could easily have been boorish. And while I think it’s a shame our heroine doesn’t stay in the women’s university she sets up, an audience in 1884 clearly wasn’t ready for an idea like that. Cheeky changes Willmott concludes with guarantee a smile. And of course the music and lyrics are kept, if reorganised, skillfully adapted for piano by Richard Baker and Nick Barstow – anything else would be a home goal.

Like many musicals on the fringe, miraculously, Princess Ida doesn’t feel small. With a cast of 14 on the tiny stage, Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography is a marvel. Willmott’s revisions make it feel like there are no small parts here, but Bridget Costello and Zac Wancke sound especially sweet in their ballads. For the hat-trick Simon Butteriss has to be singled out as his experience with patter really shows – his deliciously lecherous villain is worth every word. I don’t know the result of the football match, but this Princess Ida got my cheers.

Until 18 April 2015


Photograph by Scott Rylander