Bubble wrap… things with stripes… having dessert as a main course… the even-numbered Star Trek films. These are some of the ‘brilliant things’ that appear on a list started by a seven year old to help his suicidal mother feel less sad. It may not have had much of an impact on his mum, but it certainly worked its magic on the audience at The Edge Theatre in Chorlton on Saturday night.
Every Brilliant Thing is a play about depression – not exactly a recipe for a fun night out, you might conjecture. However, writer Duncan Macmillan applies the lightest possible touch to this weighty topic – and manages to do so without sacrificing any depth or complexity. The futility of a little boy’s attempt to cure his mother’s severe mental illness is cripplingly sad. And, as the story develops, we see the devastating ripple effects of this illness. And yet there is a total absence of mawkishness or self-indulgence. Indeed, the story telling is often hilarious and the process of listing brilliant things conveys an optimism that is genuinely uplifting.
The writing is terrific. Clear, simple, profound, funny and heart-breaking – often all at the same time. The flyer reports that it’s ‘based on true and untrue stories’. It certainly feels authentic. But it’s not just the writing that rings true. This show is crucially dependent upon the performance: the narrator’s relationship with the audience is an integral part of the experience. Originally, the narrator was played by the incomparable Jonny Donahoe, and his contribution to the development of the play was so significant that, by the time it was published in 2015, he was listed as co-writer. James Rowland is a worthy successor and plays the role with tremendous energy and passion. He establishes rapport from the outset and it’s hard to believe that he is not telling us his personal story – from being that bewildered seven year old boy, through to first love, marriage and divorce.
The audience is drawn in to the story-telling in a whole variety of ways and Rowland manages the inevitable unpredictability of this with gentle professionalism. Before the show starts, he hands out scraps of paper to various members of the audience and we are primed to shout out our contribution to the list of brilliant things at the appropriate time. (Mine reads ‘1092 – conversation’; my partner has ‘324 – Gandalf’) Audience members are also called upon to play various roles as the story unfolds – the vet who euthanised his childhood pet, his dad, his teacher, his girlfriend. This is all done with great warmth and a surprising lack of awkwardness. Indeed, it feels delightful, spontaneous and very, very funny.
Macmillan says that his aim is to give voice to things that are often unsaid or difficult to talk about. Mental illness clearly falls into this category, and the normalising role of this kind of theatre is significant. It is interesting to speculate how this play would be different with a female narrator (Macmillan allows for both in a Note to the published play). But with male suicide as the biggest killer of men under 45, it seems important for a male voice to model the self-revelations here.
Talking of revelation, I should probably confess that this is the third time I have seen Every Brilliant Thing – and I hope it won’t be my last! Indeed, I have long held the view that an annual viewing of this show should be prescribed on the NHS. It is painfully poignant but it also reminds us of the pleasure and redemptive power that can be found in the most mundane of things. Seeing it here in Manchester so soon after last week’s tragic events seems particularly apt.