Normal – Society as the hysteric. (Theatre Review)


The Uncertainty Principle and The Old 505 Theatre

29 May – 15 June You can grab your tickets here

Currently showing at the 505 Theatre in Newtown is Katie Pollock’s Normal, a fascinating examination of the way that societal pressures can impose themselves upon the bodies of the unsuspecting, or in this case, young women. Normal draws its inspiration from the town that caught Tourette’s, a true story where a series of young women developed similar ticks through no discernable cause. At the surface, Katie Pollock appears to make no judgement on the cause (or reason) behind this phenomenon, but a closer look reveals an interesting parallel drawn that primarily surfaces through an examination of power and narrative. With clever casting and direction from Anthony Skuse, the audience are treated to an examination of class, culture and capital via multiple roles played by a cast of four. Of particular interest is the role of sales assistant, headmistress and mother played by Chika Ikogwe posited against Cecilia Morrow as Poppy’s mother and the friend Sasha who experiences similar symptoms to Poppy. A key moment of power transference exists when Sasha’s wealthy mother asks Poppy to engage in a prayer meeting intended to absolve poppy of the ‘guilt’ she must feel as a consequence of bringing the terrible illness into the community. Poppy’s mother is poor, Sasha’s mother is rich. Through casting, Anthony Skuse affords powerless roles, such as Poppy’s mother and Sasha Cecilia Morrow and capitalist or power-centric roles to Chika Ikogwe. This allows us to see the emergence of a point of Katie Pollock’s that while people may act like victims (Sasha’s mother or the bored shop girl) it is this subversion that allows us to forget to see that they have the power to make a difference.

When a poor girl gets sick it’s all very sad. But when rich girls get sick, the poor girl has infected the community. However, Katie Pollock never lets us forget that these instruments of capitalism (the ‘good’ stay at home mum, the shop girl, the private school girl) are secretly governed by capitalisms discourse. Therefore, although they may have power, they can’t wield it against capitalism itself. Neither can the poor escape their assigned role. (How can you have rich if you have no poor?) When Poppy (Alexandra Morgan) wants a dress her mother can’t afford, her actions nail her to the consequences or a certain morality. Poppy can’t return the dress, but neither can her mother leave the neighborhood. A lack of finances binds them irrevocably to multiple versions of the disastrous prayer meeting she is obliged to attend. The wealthy occur as victims while the poor are assigned the role of perpetrator and must atone for their perceived moral transgression.

In this way Katie Pollock shines a light on a double standard that forces Poppy into confessing to a crime she did not commit. We witness a discourse that allows for a pseudo-enlightenment and quasi-self-criticism donned by the hysterical capitalist master that ends up being so good at consumerism it consumes itself. Like so many others inside this system, Poppy is best to just take the blame for an undiagnosed illness, because its easier on herself and everyone else if we all just play ball. In a remarkable turn by Finn Penrose, we see a therapist talking around the subject, becoming more and more obtuse as they try to help and support the young Poppy. In the end, there is no countering the overarching narrative of rich versus poor. Poppy’s condition was sad and worrying until rich girls contracted it. Then it became a crime.

This production of Normal currently showing at the 505 Theatre is a wonderful example of the distracting power of narrative and the ability for a society intent on building a foundational discourse in capitalism to miss something as important as complete ecological annihilation. On a simple yet beautiful set designed by Kelsey Lee, Anthony Skuse applies his deft hand to performances and casting in order to draw out writer Katie Pollock’s nuances. With a particularly astounding performance by Alexandra Morgan as Poppy, the surrounding characters are mulched in together to form a series of influences that dictate how a story is to be run by its multifarious and often competing characters.

Enhancing this motif, Anthony Skuse moves the action swiftly (this is a play that will fly past time-wise) leaving using the excellent writing as an invitation to the imagination on the part of the audience, rather than an exercise in filling in blanks. Sound design by Cluny Edwards keeps tension high, including an effective use of sound as location which surprises and intrigues.

The performances of Normal are the lynch pin here and Anthony Skuse calls forth the best from his small cast. Behind the excellent Alexandra Morgan is Chika Ikogwe, Finley Penrose and Cecilia Morrow who each bring energy and a bombastic verve to their multiple roles leaving us spellbound by pace and enormity. Katie Pollocks premise is thrilling enough, but with such energetic and concise performances, the play becomes an all too fast journey into a fascinating world that will leave you dying to know more.