The new normal

Kate Johnstone on 'A Show for Normal People' and 'Alma's Not Normal'.

Normality is currently under scrutiny by Grayson Perry, touring the country in A Show for Normal People. Self-described as a ‘TED talk – the panto!’, Grayson is interested in what society thinks is ‘normal’. Skipping around the stage in a silvery babygrow, he personifies the idea that appearances are almost always deceptive, and that normality is for the birds.

The format is driven by audience polls via our smartphones. These range from the obvious (how we voted), the fun (predominant colour in our wardrobe) to the challenging (‘Did you get enough attention as a child?’ Yes or no response only). There are some interesting insights as Grayson comments on how the responses of this affluent London audience differ from those in other parts of the country – he was in Blackpool only days earlier. Interspersed with some original songs sung with passion, if not overwhelming talent – as he would be the first to admit – the show flits from silly to serious, although it never quite takes flight. But it’s a fun night out.

Sophie Willan is also interested in what we mean by ‘normal’. She plays the eponymous Alma in Alma’s Not Normal, commissioned on the back of her BAFTA win for the pilot episode. The award is more than deserved: her writing is sharp, black and laugh out loud. Alma is entering her thirties, recently split from her childhood sweetheart and unemployed. Her past is traumatic, yet she seems to be able to not let it weigh her down. She’s a grown up version of ‘the baby from Trainspotting, if she’d lived’, and if she can’t be normal, she’s going to be fabulous.

Her mother Lin (Siobhan Finneran) was the heroin addict in her life, now clean but in a psychiatric unit due to drug-induced psychosis (‘the Iggy Pop of the psych ward’). Lin is one of the most convincing representations of someone with psychosis I’ve seen: bolshie, funny, righteously angry, and extremely vulnerable. Joan (Lorraine Ashbourne) is Alma’s grandmother, the relative voice of normality, lover of animal prints, sex and fried spam. We learn that Alma and Joan had their troubles themselves – hardly surprising with what Alma had experienced – and Alma spent time in care.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a semi-autobiographical element to all this, although even when it turns to Alma’s sex working, you could never describe it as ‘confessional’. Willan has managed to craft something both charming and life-affirming, whilst addressing powerful truths about the harm that can be done to children, and the ways in which they can be healed. A brilliant and memorable watch.

- Reviewed by Kate Johnstone, Associate Editor for Culture

A Show for Normal People - Grayson Perry (www.fane.co.uk/grayson) is broadcasting live from Bath on 14 November. Alma’s Not Normal is available on BBC iPlayer. Sophia Willan’s outreach arts organisation, focused on young people in the North West who have experienced being in care, is at https://storiesofcare.co.uk/

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