This is Normal – Old Red Lion, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Stuart Warwick

Aimed at fans of Fleabag and This is Going to Hurt, Stuart Warwick’s 60-minute semi-confessional monologue This is Normal certainly gives the audience an insight into the life of a hospital porter. But these comparisons are really for the purpose of marketing the play because Warwick’s storytelling has far more in common with Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads in which his unnamed central character examines a series of events that shape the life of the protagonist while vividly creating the people he meets and the spaces he encounters every day.

At the end of the pandemic, a hospital porter is busy carrying bottles of urine and waste, as well as transporting patients from wards to specialist units, labs and the morgue, while his thoughts regularly stray to the Grindr app on his phone. Musing on the nature of work and life for a single gay man in a very particular period of time, an encounter with a dementia patient and his daughter becomes significant.

Warwick’s drama is filled with carefully observed assessments and insights into everyday life, explaining with tiring routines, the frustrations and petty interactions that define colleague relationships and the moments of fantasy or escape that intrude regularly. This is Normal delves straight into a conversational tone with plenty of gory details discussing the porter’s work transporting extracted wombs, urine, blood and other bodily substances around the hospital. There is a matter-of-fact tone to the delivery, the speaker at ease with the realities of human existence as Warwick sweeps away the romantic notions of television hospital dramas in favour of the grim but engaging reality.

The story unfolds in three distinct episodes; the first provides a cogent sense of the hospital itself, its layout, the secret hideaways and coping mechanisms the porter uses to get through the day as well as some insights into his personality including obsessions with Russell Tovey and Danny Dyer. The second phase creates the play’s dramatic driver and its consequences beyond the hospital environment, while the third examines the aftermath. Throughout, Warwick weaves layers of storytelling that start to open out the porter’s past, his present-day responses and underlying homophobia from others experienced in different ways throughout his life.

Although the structure is in place and This is Normal already has the same feel for vivid and expressive language that Bennett’s monologue series perfected, it does need stronger purpose and a dramatic arc that takes the character on some kind of trajectory. Part of that is for Warwick to decide whether the audience should be on the porter’s side or should be reassessing him and his motives throughout the story. The character doesn’t always get it right and there is greater mileage in playing with audience responses, even their prejudices, in the changing assessment of this creation as his life unfolds.

The same is true of the fold-out stories that underpin the introspective moments of the play and while a patient’s romantic history and hints at the porter’s own difficult past are interesting plot points, they need further explanation and context in order to meaningfully affect the porter’s decision-making in the moment.

This is Normal has plenty of avenues for development and as we move away from the pandemic, Warwick has a character who already has plenty of life that is entirely unaffected by covid – the audience just needs to hear a little more about it.

Runs until 23 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Carefully observed

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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