Paines Plough Roundabout Theatre, Southbank, London
If you told someone about a show featuring depression and being the child of a suicidal mother, most responses would be, `oh, I don’t think so. Not for me. Sounds too depressing.’
They’d be so wrong. On the contrary, they’d be missing something so heart-warming and life affirming as to kick themselves they hadn’t seen it sooner.
So it is with Duncan Macmillan’s hour-long Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Paines Plough co-artistic director, George Perrin.
I don’t know whether Macmillan actually had a mother who committed suicide, or suffers from depression. I do know he’s a writer who impresses me more and more after seeing his recent adaptation with Robert Icke of Orwell’s 1984 for the Headlong company. He evidently works a good deal in European theatre houses, especially in Germany and France and was also writer in residence both with Paines Plough and Manchester Royal Exchange.
All of which and none of which you might say feeds into the deeply personal, effervescing Every Brilliant Thing. As played in Paines Plough’s pop-up Roundabout Theatre on the Southbank, it provides as delicious a late evening’s fare as you’re likely to find anywhere at this time of year.
Paines Plough, it should be remembered, is new writing’s national touring company, around for well over a quarter of a century, actually going on forty years plus. They never stop touring and have been the forcing house for a legion of successful writers including Abi Morgan, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Dennis Kelly, Mike Bartlett and many more.
Now they’ve come up with an even better ruse in terms of touring, their own, lightweight, portable, environmentally sound auditorium. Every Brilliant Thing (co-produced with Pentabus, another fine, indispensable touring company), fits into this perfectly.
Sitting on benches, in the round, we first meet performer, Jonny Donahoe as a chubbily affable host, greeting almost every audience member with a `hello’ and a piece of paper on which is inscribed a phrase and a number. `When I call out the number’, he instructs, `read out the sentence.’
And so begins the story of a young 6-year old who first got to know about death when his pet dog, Ronnie Barker, had to be put down and his Dad, one day at school, came to meet him rather than his mum. `Mum’s in hospital. Dad says she’s done something stupid.’
Along this twin track of growing sense of awareness and mounting sadness runs another. To counteract the inner pain, our storyteller starts to make lists of the things he loves about life and prospective enjoyments. They range from the typical – ice cream and Kung Fu movies – to the more experimental: having a dessert as a main course, a hairdresser who listens…and on. Add your own!
And this is where the audience and the numbers come in. Donahoe has not only greeted us smiling as we have entered. Unbeknown to us, he’s also been sizing us up as to who might best play the part he will assign to them: a vet, Dad, a school counsellor, a girl-friend. As our number comes up, we shout out our little inscriptions. And as crucial moments arise in the tale of our young shy, nerdish narrator, audience members take on their allotted roles with amazing aplomb.
Good nature and a surprising degree of general public talent abounds. As the narrator’s sadness grows deeper, the lists grow longer, past the hundreds, into the thousands and upwards to a million. And love spreads. Into his life, into the audience and out beyond, into the summer night.
It is indeed a sweet, brilliant show, touching on areas – especially the mostly 20-somethings who made up the audience the night I saw it – would probably run a mile from ordinarily. But such is the genuineness and warmth of Donahoe’s personality that even though he and Paines Plough sometimes sail close to the wind in what they ask of their audience `helpers’, Every Brilliant Thing emerges as a triumphant paean to the little things that make life worth living, especially books and the sleeve notes on vinyl records. Hooray for vinyl!
Note for Macmillan fans (including me), Lungs, his play about having children is also part of the Paines Plough Southbank season and goes to Edinburgh Fringe as does Every Brilliant Thing, Dennis Kelly’s Our Teacher’s a Troll and Alexandra Wood’s The Initiate. See details and links below: