The Normal Heart review: ‘phenomenal’

By Tania Chakraborti

Ambitiously spotlighting the serious issue of the HIV-AIDS outbreak in New York in the 1980s, Fourth Wall Theatre’s production was clarified as autobiographical; it is in these instances that the danger for subject matter to be poorly handled, melodramatically delivered or badly done unfortunately pervades. Yet there is no need to beat around the bush here: The Normal Heart was without a doubt a highly powerful and stunningly executed play from start to finish.

The audience is met with Director Sophie Wright’s set; it is stark, minimalistic and monochrome. Statistics and factual data, a greyish flow of words, overwhelm the staging, reminding the audience of the shocking presence of this tangible illness. Yet the use of written words reminds us how, upon the outbreak of the disease, exchanging words on this very issue was distinctly taboo. A set which can provoke the audience to think in this way is extremely clever. I appreciated Wright’s directorial decisions throughout, which were simple but undoubtedly effective.

The use of two levels of staging was smart and allowed for fairly slick scene switching, something which was handled competently with the aid of Technical Director Lucien Rhys and Lighting and Sound Op Becky Brookes. Although the clear downfall of this setup was that set changes were too often fully exposed whilst scenes were ongoing, detracting from the acting at times. Yet, the acting was so commendable that allowances can and should easily be made.

It is a rare and wonderful thing to see such a strong cast assembled together. Almost every actor on stage had their ‘grand moment’ where they single-handedly stunned the audience to silence. By the end of the second act, some audience members were in tears (including myself) and this is rare indeed; a testament to the true story which was brought to life so realistically and effectively.

The departure from his more comedic roles this year was a welcome change for Andrew Shires as Ned, the activist campaigner. His line delivery, actions and dialogue throughout were laced with brilliant subtleties which made his characterisation so perceivably tangible; you related to his character, empathised and understood him completely. The chemistry between Shires and Andrew Finn, who played Felix his lover, was so utterly believable. Finn’s execution was professional throughout; his balance in tone between emotional and comedic was perfect. My favourite scene was undoubtedly the pair’s last together. Music and lighting aided it wonderfully, as in the couple’s final moments the audience are witnesses to their pure intimacy – it was here when many audience members were forced to tears.

Despite its heavy-handed approach to its subject matter, there were pockets of comedic relief and Charlie Hyde as Tommy must be thanked a great deal for this – he was a joy to watch. However, at times, he had the tendency to overact a little, though admittedly the role may have necessitated this. Joe Stanton produced his performance of the year as Bruce in his standout and harrowing recount of the death of his loved one and the foul treatment he received by society before and after his death. Alex Marshall’s similarly powerful speech in which he frustratingly agonises over the uncertainties of this disease, the impact on his life, relationships and livelihood, was deeply emotional and simply accomplished.

Charlotte Phipps as the increasingly disheartened doctor was solidly consistent in her characterisation; her sense of frustration at her inability to cure her patients was palpable. Also worthy of note was Patrick Palmer as Ben, well-casted as the advice-giving yet unsupportive, lawyerly older brother. The later scene between himself and Shires was pure magic and the pair worked well together. To be honest, there are so many powerful moments in this production, that to continue to provide an exhaustive list would be counterproductive.

Yet it is fair to say that, considering the play is set in New York, American accents across the board were rather disappointing. Each actor was guilty of losing control vocally in this sense, veering at times towards English, Irish and hybrids of various others, (Marshall and Shires being perhaps most guilty of this). It did marginally let the production down due to the regularity of slip-ups. Yet admittedly, considering audience members were generally left in silent shock, tears and a highly emotional state by the end of the second act, does a dodgy accent here or there really matter?

What really matters, is that FWT wholeheartedly succeeded in spotlighting the horrific realities of society’s recent past; the uncertainty of this illness and the ingrained societal prejudices towards the gay community in the 1980s. It reminds us of those who were cruelly ignored by the authoritative structures in place which should have protected them. I know exams are looming, but it would be a crime not to head down to The Assembly Rooms for a mere hour or so to witness a simply phenomenal piece of theatre. And with many of the cast in their final years, I urge you not to miss the chance to see this genuine talent for some of the last times on the Durham stage. Please, see this show.

‘The Normal Heart’ will be performed in the Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thursday, 4th May until Saturday 6th May at 19:30. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: Fourth Wall Theatre

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