Every Brilliant Thing Review In The National

15 Nov 2021

Review by Mark Brown in The National newspaper

Every Brilliant Thing: A comic and humane story of depression told with brilliance

EVERY Brilliant Thing, the 2013 play by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, is a highly original, deeply humane and extremely funny work of stage drama. Written to be performed by a single actor, it is built upon the intelligent premise that its central subject – namely, clinical depression – is best explored in the theatre by means of interaction between actor and audience.

Originally created for an unnamed protagonist who was young, male and English, the play has been recast (with Macmillan’s blessing) for this excellent production by Tobermory-based arts organisation An Tobar & Mull ­Theatre. Directed by the company’s recently ­appointed artistic director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, the piece – which tours points as diverse as Oban, Greenock, New Galloway and Aberfeldy – is ­performed by the exceptional young ­actor Naomi Stirrat.

Working on a minimal set that is ­copiously supplied with props, ­Stirrat plays Macmillan and Donahoe’s ­character (whose mother suffers from a depression so profound that it has led her to attempt suicide) as a ­Hebridean, ­Gaelic-speaking young woman.

The “brilliant things” of the play’s title are the reasons for living – starting with “ice cream”, and including “things with stripes” and “people falling over” – that, as a little girl, our ­protagonist wrote as a list in the hope of saving her Mum’s life.

This list – which grows, throughout the character’s childhood and early ­adulthood, to consist of many thousands of brilliant things – forms the basis for the show’s benign element of audience participation. To give away more would be to get into spoiler territory: suffice it to say that the production’s requests for ­audience involvement are gentle, humorous and a million miles away from the lung-bursting contributions of ­pantomime season.

I must confess, pantos aside, I have long been sceptical of theatre productions that require audience participation. They are often given to gimmickry and can become magnets for the exhibitionist tendency in the theatre audience.

This piece is different, however. The audience engagement is carefully ­considered and purposeful, generating an empathy with the narrator’s experiences (of her mother’s hospitalisation, her ­father’s coping mechanisms, and her own emotional and romantic life after leaving home) that is crucial to the effectiveness of the show.

The play is beautifully conceived, ­cleverly structured and ­compassionately written. However, it is constructed in a way that requires of its performer ­tremendous ability, confidence and, ­indeed, personal charm.

Fortunately, these are qualities that Stirrat has to burn. On Tuesday ­evening at the village of Pennyghael, on the ­southern peninsula of Mull, she was ­performing to a very small audience.

By the very nature of this drama, such circumstances place an additional ­burden on the actor. Stirrat, however, was entirely unfazed, making a virtue out of a necessity, improvising brilliantly on the situation and successfully generating enough intimacy and bonhomie to fuel a dozen shows.

From our narrator’s mum ­correcting the spelling and grammar in her ­life-affirming list, to dad and ­daughter having nothing to say in the car ride from school to ­hospital, the piece ­positively fizzes with recognisable ­human behaviours. Likewise the love, connection, emotional investment and agonising ­difficulties bound up in the protagonist’s relationship with her university ­sweetheart, Sam.

 

It takes an outstanding actor like ­Stirrat to bring this splendid piece of chamber theatre fully to life. However, that process is rendered slightly easier by a fabulous musical score.

By dint of the narrator’s father’s excellent taste in music, this production boasts, surely, one of the greatest soundtracks in world theatre; including, as it does, tracks by Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Curtis Mayfield.