We are often encouraged to count our blessings, to focus on the glass half full. It is a worthy aim, but it is never that simple. In Every Brilliant Thing, UK playwright Duncan McMillan (in collaboration with comedian Jonny Donahoe) has found inventive and accessible theatrical ways to broach the taboo subject of suicide and existential despair.
Since 2013, the play has been widely performed internationally, and an English production featured in the Perth and Adelaide Festivals in 2016. Now, State Theatre has mounted a new version currently performed in repertory with Suzie Miller’s hit play Prima Facie.
As our unnamed narrator bluntly tells us at the outset: “The list began after her first attempt.” A small boy, bewildered, is kept at arm’s length from the family crisis, so he begins to name the ways, to catalogue what British singer-songwriter Ian Dury once called the reasons to be cheerful. “Ice cream. Water fights. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. The colour yellow. Things with stripes.”
This enumeration of simple joys becomes a continuing project, resumed in his teenage years, then later encouraged by Sam, his uni girlfriend who becomes his wife, then sadly, his ex. The list becomes voluminous – into the hundreds of thousands, becoming ever more quirky, lyrical, surreal and esoteric. It becomes an all-encompassing, never-ending mantra against despair.
State Theatre’s vibrant and engrossing production (assuredly directed by Yasmin Gurreeboo) keeps carefully close to the precepts of the original. Ideally suited to the Space Theatre, it is presented in the round (or rather the square), with no set to speak of, unless we notice the mixed array of coloured chairs scattered among the front rows to break the uniformity – designer Kathryn Sproul at her witty minimalist best.
For lighting designer Nic Mollison, it’s house lights up throughout – but pleasingly mellow, not interrogating. Andrew Howard’s sound design feeds through the musical favourites named in the text – Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, Ornette Coleman free jazz, and Billie Holiday singing “Gloomy Sunday”.
Central to the considerable success of this production is the excellent Jimi Bani, who manages the carefully layered storytelling with warmth and an effortless emotional ambience. He is not only performer but director of the narrative. When a vet is required for the scene where the boy’s dog, Sherlock Bones, has to be euthanised, he invites a young woman from the audience. There is no coercion, no pressure as he cues and guides her performance. Someone else provides their coat to be folded into the form of the ailing dog and the vignette is completed.
Bani similarly recruits someone to be the boy’s dad on the way to the hospital to see the stricken mother, and another as Mrs Patterson, the school counsellor whose sock puppet becomes the means for the traumatised child to express his feelings. All these are common impro devices, but neither Bani nor the text allow them to be cliched or mawkish and often they include spontaneous comic moments without undercutting the seriousness of the story.
In so many ways the text, and State’s production, has been carefully crafted to avoid it losing its ambitious emotional thread. It is not hostage to the improvisation freezing or corpsing; whatever happens in the moment (under Bani’s subtle unfazed guidance) serves the performance. And the many audience members, primed to call out on cue their numbered Brilliant Thing, provide an energetic interaction and narrative acceleration The Rocky Horror Show would be pleased to own.
It is rare to see an audience as engaged and exhilarated as in this production. Jimi Bani is splendid in his role, navigating this moving and unflinching account of mental illness and its intergenerational impact while never letting us stray far from those many prosaic, but numinous, reasons to be cheerful.
Every Brilliant Thing is being performed in repertory with the outstanding Prima Facie in the Space Theatre until May 13. Discounts apply when purchasing tickets for both productions. They make an intriguing and memorable double bill.
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