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Review: Every Brilliant Thing

Adelaide Festival

One-man play Every Brilliant Thing tackles the difficult subject of mental illness in a beautiful and life-affirming way, writes reviewer Jo Vabolis.

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How do we talk about the things no one wants to talk about? When faced with feelings of dread and apprehension, do we flee or stand our ground and mount a fight against our fears?

Depression touches all of us. Maybe we’re familiar with its murky depths through personal experience, or perhaps we see the way it steers the life of a friend or family member into dark waters.

Every Brilliant Thing tackles one of the most difficult subjects, mental illness, in a genuinely life-affirming way. The writers’ aim was “to make people feel OK to talk and think about depression, to talk about it responsibly and accurately, and to provide a few tools with which to think and talk about it”.

This is the first Adelaide performance of the theatre piece written by British playwright Duncan Macmillan with UK comedian Jonny Donahoe. It premiered at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013 and returns to Australia after 2016 seasons in Edinburgh and New York, and previous runs in Melbourne and Perth. It has been so well received that it’s recently been filmed for an HBO TV special.

At the heart of this show is the connection between actor James Rowland and the small group of people surrounding the performance space. The staging is sparse – one man, a few props, lots of paper, and us.

We audience members, large numbers of us, are integral to the success of the show. There’s nothing to be scared of, however. It’s interactive in a beautifully sensitive way.

The story is one that is easy to relate to. A young boy, seven years old, is picked up early one day from school by his father. They must go to the hospital. His mother has “done something stupid”.

An emotional trapdoor opens and the boy feels himself falling. Is it his fault? He feels guilty. Could something be done to stop this happening again?

He begins to list every brilliant thing about the world – maybe he can help his mum remember all the reasons life is worth living? He’s not sure, but he thinks he might be a genius. On scraps of paper, post-it notes, on toilet seats and other household objects he carefully collates down his favourite moments.

At first the entries are simple: ice-cream, people falling over, things with stripes. As the years pass and the list grows longer, the complexity of the entries evolves.

Desperate to reach his mother and unable to connect meaningfully with a father who can’t speak of the sadness in their home, he grows up under the shadow of continuous stress. At university he struggles to engage fully until he meets the similarly shy and bookish Sam in the library.

Things get better, and for the first time in his life he understands the lyrics to pop songs. Into each life some rain must fall, however, and when things get tough he must revisit the past to understand the present.

There are so many positives to take away from this immensely enjoyable hour. Above all, Every Brilliant Thing reminds us that it’s easier to be hopeful if we take the time to notice all the aspects of life, from the trivial to the momentous, that bring us joy.

Every Brilliant Thing is being presented by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 18.

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