Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: Every Brilliant Thing
Reasons to be cheerful
In many respects Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company’s ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ shouldn’t really work as well as it does. Broadly entertaining, there’s no real intellectual rigour in its response to depression, no real insights or sense of the heart-breaking horror that surrounds the day to day lived experience of depression. Its production values aren’t on the expensive end of the spectrum either, so nothing visually arresting to speak of there. Essentially it feels like a one man, stand-up comedy routine aimed at children. And therein lies its near irresistible charm. Written by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, and performed by Jonny Donahoe, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’s’ almost childlike approach to theatre making is wonderfully beguiling in its simplicity, directness and refusal to abandon hope in the face of the terrifying.
Reminiscent of Ian Dury’s excellent song ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful (part 3),’ ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is a list of every brilliant thing imaginable that makes life worth living. Except in ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ it’s a list drawn up by a six-year-old boy as a coping strategy in the face of the unimaginable: the attempted suicide of his mother. It’s a short list at six years of age, but it’s his way of trying to help his mother, of offering hope to them both, and of coping himself with the powerlessness he feels. Even when its value to his mother proves negligible, the list is constantly returned to throughout his life, firstly as a teenager, then when he meets his true love Sam at college and again in later years. Ultimately the list becomes less about saving his mother than it is about saving himself, as he fixedly focuses on finding nothing but good things. Because as a child who grew up around depression, he has all the classic symptoms. A higher reaction to stress than others, a greater fear of happiness, a difficulty meeting people and a constant underlying fear that the illness that afflicts his mother might also afflict him. But there’s always ice cream, Kung-Fu movies and chocolate, maybe even a million other brilliant things to focus on instead.
Played in the round with a cast of thousands, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ proves imagination can achieve what finances often cannot. Looking as if it was made on a budget of twenty euro, its sock puppets, library books, sheets of paper and a revolving keyboard all help tell its deeply charming tale without the distraction of spectacle. Jonny Donahue exudes a quiet confidence and boyish charm that lures the audience in, and has even been known to seduce Festival Directors into getting involved, who acquitted themselves admirably in the process. Yet if its relentless focus on listing the positives ensures it never delves into the dark side too much, it also lends a darkened sense that ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is a little afraid of its own possible happiness. Always keeping doggedly to an even keel, it never quite achieves the ecstatic release its soul songs or drum rolls suggest, as if fearing it, or fearing plummeting into darker depths when the pendulum swings back.
Even so, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is a journey well worth taking. There are some who might find this approach a little lightweight in its handling of depression, but ultimately ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ is not really about depression. It’s about determination, about a coping mechanism that can hide pains as much as it helps the victim cope with them. It’s a universal act of hope, a communal act of art as gentle participation, and a refusal to be defined by the darkness that can often consume life. If into each life some rain must fall, then add the delight of falling rain to the list of life’s infectious yet simple joys. Right after ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’
‘Every Brilliant Thing’ by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company runs at The Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival until October 16th