Photos – Darren Thomas
Every Brilliant Thing is a surprisingly joyful play about what happens when joy disappears. It’s hard to imagine leaving a theatre show about a boy whose mum is suicidal with cheeks sore from smiling, but the after-effects of seeing Every Brilliant Thing are anything but expected.
It’s a black box show, with the audience packed into the Cremorne in the round. As seats are taken, actor James Rowland circles the seating banks talking to individuals. He hands them pieces of paper with ‘brilliant things’ written on them, the kind that might remind you that life is worth living. Things like the colour yellow. Ice cream. Things with stripes. These things draw the audience in instantly: after all we all love these things, too.
The chosen audience members are asked to read their items out loud when Rowland calls their number during the show, the first indication of the audience participation to come. The house lights never go down. Instead, the jazz which has been blasting softens and James takes centre stage, introducing himself as a seven-year-old whose mother has “done something stupid”. And then the beauty begins.
Like the world of a seven-year-old, this show seems very simple on the surface, but its workings are much more complex. The audience participate throughout, until it seems they have colluded in telling the story just as much as Rowland. They play family members, teachers and friends and provide props and set design.
This is particularly clever, as this story about the impact that mental illness has on a family is not one experienced only by a slim minority: in some shape or form everyone in the audience is familiar with the still often stigmatised effects of mental illness. By the time the night is through, everyone has contributed to this tale, whether it be by accepting an offer to join Rowland on stage, tapping feet along to the music that fills the show, shedding a tear or smiling across the seating banks.
While thoroughly engaging, this show is also a gentle educator. With the lights up, it’s not possible to completely forget that this is a night at the theatre. So, when Rowland takes a serious tone and speaks about the chemical changes in the brains of children with suicidal mothers, or the recommendations set for media reporting on suicide, the audience listens.
A collaboration between playwright Duncan Macmillan, George Perrin and original performer Johnny Donahoe, the script as it now stands was developed over years of creating and devising. The amount of work and heart put into the script is evident: this is a really well put together piece of theatre.
In this production by UK companies Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company, there are some points when key emotional moments could be hit a little harder. Without moving into melodrama, which it could be tricky to pull the audience-performers back from, a little more time and space could be provided to allow the story to hit the highs and lows with more depth. Overall, however, it is a stunning show which audiences of Brisbane and subsequent Australian seasons shouldn’t miss.
Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company
Every Brilliant Thing
by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Director George Perrin
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Dates: 8 – 11 March 2017
Bookings: qpac.com.au | 136 246