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Theatre Review: The Normal Heart

The cruellest pandemic play that leaves audiences haunted long after it's finished

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart. Credit: Helen Maybanks

The Normal Heart
National Theatre, London,
until Nov 6

Dramas written in the midst of crises tend not to age well – hindsight gives theatre-goers an unfair advantage over playwrights – but, almost 40 years after it was first performed in New York, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart still packs an almighty punch.

It was, of course, hard watching Dominic Cooke’s revival not to see parallels with the pandemic we’ve just been through.

With AIDS, as with Covid, there was a shocking tardiness in confronting reality and there was a political aspect to it that made matters not better, but infinitely worse.

The panic that ensues from a plague of any kind always brings out, too, the best and worst in humanity.

AIDS was, however, the cruellest of pandemics because it targeted a cruellest pandemic still haunts specific demographic that was already, too often, being vilified: gay men.

Ned – Ben Daniels – recognises, early on, what’s a happening, but with homophobia still rife in Ronald Reagan’s America, this involved a lot of people – not least Ed Koch, New York’s allegedly closeted mayor – first having coming to terms with themselves as much as the virus.

There’s a fine comic, but also very poignant, scene when one of the mayor’s flunkies – played by Richard Cant – inadvertently talks to Ned and his associates about how the virus is affecting “us,” before swiftly correcting himself and saying “you”.

There’s powerhouse acting from Daniels, and, as his dying boyfriend, Dino Fetscher (a Welshman, despite his faultless American accent). Liz Carr, playing a feisty doctor in a wheelchair, is, meanwhile, mesmerising as she demands that the Establishment faces up to the fact it has a humanitarian crisis on its hands.

I challenge you to see this play and not to cry

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