The Normal Heart at The Olivier at the National Theatre: Press night review by Stephen Vowles 

Dominic Cooke’s immaculate and stimulating direction of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart became electric last night at the National. Staged in the round by Vicki Mortimer and superbly lit by Paule Constable, the magnificence of what was about to be played out was immediate.  

With the cast standing around a bright real flame of fire in a brazier, we witnessed a moment of silence to remember the estimated 36.3 million people that have died from AIDS on a global basis over the last 40 years. As the flame was lifted onto the roof of The Olivier, the play commenced. This opening sequence was just breathtaking.

Ben Daniels plays Ned Weeks, an activist, and well-respected Jewish guy who is troubled by the lack of concern and ignorance that seems to be the only agenda of the American government, and locally the City of New York,  in connection with this yet to be named virus in the early 1980’s, Daniels is just extraordinary and the rambunctious rapport he has with his fellow cast member Dino Fetscher, as his lover Felix, is totally captivating – and just beautiful to watch.

Fetscher is remarkable. Acting honours also have to go to Liz Carr who plays Dr Emma Brookner and the fact that she is in a wheelchair just adds to the mesmerising way she delivers some of the most sarcastic, satirical, “let’s get this straight”, darkly comic moments in the play, and which are simply sensational. Her body may be withered and broken but her mind and spirit soar. Totally excellent.. a true tour de force and the vocal power that comes out of her diminutive frame when she played angry was amazing, mixed with a humour which is sardonically sincere. 

This is slick, modern theatre and Kramer is relentless in demonstrating the power of politics. Showcasing the fact that in the early days of the AIDS crisis  and still relevant today, the immune system is the least understood by doctors. He does not shy away from a hard-hitting passage in the narrative, attacking media moguls, blaming them for certain aspects of the lack of reporting in the papers they owned. For not holding the press more  responsible and accountable and for not being more bombastic towards a  government for the lack of education and information they were putting out. They were just sticking their heads in the sand.

The “Wow!” factor of the play is maintained by a cast that show great skill, each shining when given the chance to deliver passionate monologues; important as plot devices. A special mention has to be made of Daniel Monks as Mickey Marcus whose command of his role is fantastic. Kramer also imparts various statistics through some of his characters that are both informative and deeply shocking when revealed.

The end is sad, so have a hanky ready; it will be needed. I won’t mince my words, I cried. A controlled sob that led the gentleman sitting next to me to offer a comforting gesture. These were tears of joy that flowed after watching a tumultuous cast that present Kramer’s play to such a high standard. 

Of course there have to be comparisons made to the current COVID crisis. The initial stage of confusion, lack of compassion by the general public, the “It won’t happen to me philosophy”. I can’t stress enough the importance of getting to see The Normal Heart. It will make you look at the importance of life, the need to show love, to be in love, to set aside the feelings of jealousy or self-loathing and all the other ugly emotions that we experience that cloud our judgement,

Remarkable theatre. Hard-hitting and so important. Totally brilliant. 


The Normal Heart is at The Olivier, part of the National Theatre, and runs to Saturday 6th November at Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 9PX. Box office: 020 7452 3060

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