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The Normal Heart - GRADS

Reviewed by Jack Bengough

 

GRADS’ production of The Normal Heart is a rare case of a theatrical drama capable of inflicting a genuine sense of terror and dread onto its audience. The play, written by Larry Kramer, was originally staged in 1985, and it is based on Kramer’s own experiences in New York as the AIDS epidemic first took hold. Ned Weeks, portrayed by Zane Alexander in this production, serves as a fictionalised version of Kramer, a gay man who watches as members of the local homosexual community die from a disease that doctors cannot understand and politicians cannot manage to care about.


It was surprising to enter The Actors Hub performance space to find a black box stage, which was furnished only with four small... black boxes. Despite the physical space being highly undefined, clever work from lighting designer Mark Nicholson (and operation by Patrick Liston), as well as Merri Ford’s costuming and Barry Park’s direction and staging of the actors, the setting of each of the play’s 16 scenes was always clearly defined.


The first act begins with a dreamlike nightclub scene, as the male cast members dance, put their hands on each other, and come closer together until this dream shatters and gives way to the first scene, a medical clinic where a man is about to die from an unknown cause. The scene ends in a striking tableau: cast members look at each other with fear in their eyes and terror on their faces, uncertain of what will happen next but sure that it won’t be anything good. They stand there for what feels like a minute before the lights drop and we transition through to the next scene. There are unfortunately many parts of the performance that could have used this treatment that did not receive it, chances for audience members to sit with the cast in the individual horrors before being swept into the next.


In each scene transition, show composer Myles Wright uses a varied suite of instruments and musical styles that tonally and thematically guide the audience. Before the lights come up, the new scene is introduced with a voiceover stating the date and number of new cases that are about to be reported. These skilful transitions ensured that even in these moments of pause on stage, the audience was still hooked on the production.


Throughout the first act, we are introduced to members of the New York based gay community as they come to grips with this emerging epidemic, as well as a doctor who is determined to provide care to those affected by it. We are also introduced to the struggles faced by the community outside of the disease, and the complex relationships these community members have with each other. It is in the second act, however, that these relationships and grander struggles come to truly collide with the rising epidemic. Actors Anna Head, Phil Bedworth and Adam Poole take turns delivering gut-wrenching, heart-breaking monologue after gut-wrenching, heart-breaking monologue. It must be noted the superb dialect coaching from Timothy F. Gibbons, as the cast firmly committed to their regional and cultural accents. We also see the developing relationship between Ned and Felix, portrayed by Zane Alexander and Steven Hounsome. This building romance serves as a silver lining around the dark cloud that hangs over the cast. Even in the darkest, most tragic points of this production, a shred of hope still glimmers through.


The Normal Heart is being performed at The Actors Hub through to the 18th of November, and this reviewer strongly recommends readers watch this, so long as they are aware of the themes present.

Reviewer Note: Jack Bengough has previously worked with Director Barry Park in 2017, as well as a number of cast members. Tickets for this review were provided by the theatre company.

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1 Comment


Leslie Stern
Leslie Stern
Nov 09, 2023

Hey congratulations Tim! What an interesting thing for you to be doing. Sounds like a terrific production too 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

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