Review: The Normal Heart – Emotionally captivating

A balance of comedy and tragedy, Found in 41 Theatre’s production of The Normal Heart is both emotionally captivating and thought-provoking. Written by Larry Kramer, the narrative follows gay activist and writer Ned Weeks during the 80’s in New York City as he attempts to create a group that can raise awareness of the mysterious disease killing gay men in their hundreds.

Whilst the play may have taken a short moment to fully engage, the intimacy of the performance space and the naturalistic style of the performers allowed the audience to relate and commit to the characters of the play. The directive decision to remove the wings, bringing the backstage functions to the forefront, however, ensured that we never fully suspended our disbelief. Reinforced by the titles at the end of the performance, we were constantly reminded from beginning to end that the events were not fictional, making the disease all the more present; something that was reinforced further by watching make-up artist Rebecca Eccles slowly infect characters with her brushes, applying rashes and hollowing out cheekbones.

The sheer length of time that these men had to fight to have their voices heard was reinforced through the seamlessness of the transitions; incorporating use of live-streaming, pre-recorded footage and 80’s music that captured the zeitgeist of the era and proved a technical feat. The movement onstage was creatively executed, with the action often happening ‘on the lap’ of the audience and good direction of silence that heightened tension throughout.

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The performances of all the cast deserve a high level of praise. In particular, Lucy Campbell who played the very passionate Dr Emma Brookner, and whose remarkable monologue clearly demonstrated perseverance with her HIV research as she is finally pushed from a calm and collected woman to one of anger and resent. Jonathan Dowsett’s portrayal of Mickey Marcus was consistently both loveable and relatable and, despite being one of the smaller roles, Darren Lumby’s performance as the subtly-homophobic Ben Weeks bought to life a troubled man who is caught between the love for his brother and the discomfort of his sexuality. With regards to the importance of comedy in a play discussing such hard-hitting themes, it should be noted that Morgan Buswell’s embodiment of the wonderfully camp Tommy Boatwright was a particular highlight.

The audience for the opening night was small, which was surprising given the quality of the work, yet offered an incredibly intimate experience for everyone that watched it and I can confidently say that there was not a dry eye in the audience. Produced independently of any society, the play’s success seems more impressive and the creatives behind Found in 41 Theatre, and the cast, should be incredibly proud of the work and effort that they have contributed – it was truly a touching and memorable experience.

Dan Newby

Images courtesy of Hannah Stacey

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