You don’t have to be a theater critic to be able to predict one unassailable truth about a play called “Normal”: that no one in it will possess the characteristic of the title. As it happens, that’s about the only aspect of Helen Blakeman’s weirdly arresting (and sometimes just weird) Bush Theater play that goes according to plan, beyond the excellence of the cast, which by now is a virtual given at this address.
We know from the first sight of the hooded, haunted Kate (Lisa Ellis) that her shy, terrified self couches a terrible secret, and by the intermission we are shown the physical scars to match the emotional ones. But Blakeman is remarkably cryptic, even opaque about the sheer breadth of domestic dysfunction on view: When a key plot point — think Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy — has to be elucidated afterwards by a member of the company, you know someone’s not doing their job.
Still, for much of the first act, at least, the characters are sufficiently idiosyncratic that one follows their various paths, not always sure where or how they will join up. The most accessible presence is Kate, whose confessionals (to whom, we’re not exactly sure) punctuate the action of Mike Bradwell’s characteristically deft staging. “I’m always traumatized, always,” she peeps, and so she appears, whether forestalling attempts at a 21st birthday party or scuttling into position for another semi-baring of the soul. Her fondness for razors, meanwhile, speaks volumes where furtively spoken words leave off, although one wonders whether Blakeman hasn’t given her poor, fraught heroine one riff too many on modes of damage.
Kate’s palpable sense of withdrawal is by no means the play’s abiding tone: As the scene-change music makes clear, “Normal” inhabits a climate of lushly mournful strings one minute, disco and “Uptown Girl” the next. Luckily for the audience, Kate has a flatmate, Holly (a deliciously impudent Emma Pike), who is as bold as Kate seems beaten down, and not for the first time does a play’s live wire — Holly idly sells phone sex while watching breakfast TV — seem to grab all its best lines. Content to be a “born star” if not a “porn star,” Holly inhabits an erotic reverie of her own sexual potential that is as funny as it is foolish. “How much cheaper?” she persists in asking the doctor from whom she is seeking breast enlargements, making it clear that the more of her body she is able to offer up, the less she should have to shell out once she goes under the knife.
Blakeman’s previous play, “Caravan,” was well reviewed at the Bush in 1997, and like that one, “Normal” is at its best catching character on the wing. We learn as much about Kate’s boyfriend Todd (the delightful Ben Crompton) from his casual remark, “Life, eh,” as we do from a scenario from which he is somewhat oddly written out. How can you not warm to a person who yokes together Rod Stewart and irony and still has time for the films of Russ Meyer, which makes Kate’s attachment to Thomas Hardy, by contrast, seem both gloomy and sedate?
Not that Holly, in turn, herself puts much stock in Hardy’s inevitably sad endings — a doom-laden literary trajectory that, one feels, this play will come to share. The play’s second act gives more time to the senior generation, starting with the plastic surgeon Simon (Sam Graham, projecting an apt mixture of charm and sleaze), who is revealed to have been the doctor on hand when Kate’s (unseen) two siblings died. While Simon pursues his own assignations with Joan (Marion Bailey), Kate’s mother, her father Tommy (Chris Barnes) attempts a healing that — Blakeman suggests — isn’t easily had. By play’s end, one comes to dread Kate’s every pig-tailed appearance even as the atrocities hinted at earlier on widen in scope if not always meaning. Kate’s full of words she can’t say (the names of her dead brother and sister among them) and, in its own way, so is a play that commendably steers clear of sensationalism while, at the same time, sacrificing its own narrative sense.