Review: The Normal Heart, National Theatre ★★★★☆

We open in the Olivier Theatre with thirteen men and one woman standing in a circle, lighting a flame in a moment of silence on the slate grey stage. This is not the recent Tony Award-winner The Inheritance, it is the National Theatre's revival of Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart and it is New York City, where a mysterious new disease is slowly taking hold of the gay male population. A disease so new that it has no name with which the characters here can call it by.

We first meet Ned (Ben Daniels) in the waiting room of Dr Emma (Liz Carr) where a young man, Craig (Elander Moore), has been diagnosed with the disease.

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher. Photo by Helen Maybanks
From the very first scene, Daniels' lead performance as Ned is breathtaking. He is powerful; full of rage as Ned bulldozes through his adversaries, driven by the death of Craig and the deaths that only increase as the play progresses. He aims his impassioned fury at his foes, and also his friends in his frustration as they try to raise awareness and funds in the fight against a disease no one wants to admit exists. But he is also beautiful, when talking about what his culture means to him, or sweetness, when finding first love with Felix (Dino Fetscher), and heartbreakingly mournful, when faced with death.

As a piece of theatre, the play does have its faults. It could be pacier, and is at times divided between the human element of Ned's relationships, whether with his partner, his brother or his friends, which take precedence in the latter stages of the play, and the political commentary that formed the heart of the first act. It is a little self-reverential too, often knowingly so - writer Larry Kramer based Ned on himself - and yet the constructed set pieces within the play allow the actors and the message of the play to take centre-stage.

Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris. Photo by Helen Maybanks
There are positives and negatives to Dominic Cooke's directoral choices too. The first death we encounter, in Dr Emma's waiting room, haunts the play. The young man hangs in the margins of the stage, unseen, on the edge of the action, or in full sight between scenes, helping an ill characters with their coat. He represents all of the dead young men which follow - gone but not forgotten, and never at rest. It provides a constant reminder throughout the play that every number is a person.

But the positioning of key scenes and powerful monologues in the play are lost to part of the audience because of the in-the-round format of the staging. Audience members at the back of the stage will have spent moments of heightened drama, including the play's conclusion, starring at the back of actors heads.

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher. Photo by Helen Maybanks
But still, this is a powerful play, driven by powerful performances. In addition to Daniels, there are notable contributions across the cast. Fetscher and Luke Norris (as Bruce) give stellar performances full of layers and nuance, whilst Danny Lee Wynter is scene-stealing as the 'Southern bitch', Tommy - such is Wynter's delivery that every line, every turns, Evey motion earns gleeful laughter from the Olivier audience.

It is a play that is often very, very funny, and those moments of high joy make the depths of despair all the deeper.

As the HIV/AIDS pandemic takes hold and young men begin to die, the play's real power takes hold. When Bruce recounts the death of his partner, heartbreakingly delivered by Norris, audience members begin to wipe their eyes - and as Daniels brings the play to its conclusion, there is only silence between the sobs.

The Normal Heart is at the National Theatre until 6 November
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