Normal review at Styx, London – ‘uncomfortable mix of repulsion and fascination’

Corey Montague-Sholay and Richard Ede. Photo: Kathy Trevelyan Corey Montague-Sholay and Richard Ede. Photo: Kathy Trevelyan
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In July 1931, German serial killer Peter Kurten was declared legally sane and executed after a spree of horrifyingly sadistic murders. The uncomfortable mix of repulsion and fascination which such cases elicit is the driving force behind Anthony Neilson’s Normal, revived here as part of Rift’s micro-season of brutalist 90s plays.

Director Emma Baggott dissects the text, teasing out unexpected implications and moments of fleeting humanity, but her production suffers from a wavering tone and a proliferation of arbitrary jump-scares. One sequence plays out with all the jerky movements and expository sound effects of an old cartoon. Another evokes a graphic murder by having Corey Montague-Sholay’s overwhelmed defence attorney greedily devour symbolic handfuls of bloody matter. Jarring lighting changes and blurts of noise provide sudden jolts, but undermine any escalating tension.

Richard Ede gives Kurten a brisk and commanding energy, his facade of rationality barely concealing his infantile desperation to shock. Occasionally, he veers into archness with peals of maniacal laughter, or malevolent smirks a la Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Meanwhile Cathy Walker radiates sadness as his miserably ashamed, yet unwaveringly loyal, wife. Though she spends a large part of the show motionless beneath a shroud, she gives a delicate performance once she emerges.

The stark set by Grace Smart has a grimly industrial feel, centred on a stainless steel pathologist’s slab studded with tiny lights. Damocles-like, a constellation of scissors hangs overhead, evoking both Kurten’s gruesome crimes, and the appalling formative experiences which warped him.

Uneven revival takes a scattershot approach to Neilson’s portrait of a monster