I like this audience — good people here tonight,” says performer Jonny Donahoe as he warms up a Friday-night crowd at Every Brilliant Thing. Generating goodwill is essential: Audience members don’t just watch this play — they perform it, too. The production, jointly created by Britain’s Pentabus and Paines Plough theater companies, is billed as a “solo” show. But it calls for a highly effective collaboration between the actor and the people in the seats. (Somehow the term “audience” doesn’t suffice when attendees have lines and play roles.)
Donahoe, a British comedian who puts his stand-up skills to good use here, portrays the unnamed narrator while simultaneously coaxing spectators into participating and making witty comments about what’s happening. The show is remarkable, mainly, for how seamlessly and thoroughly it includes the public. (Don’t be put off if you hate audience participation: The instructions have been thoughtfully engineered and deliver maximum value for minimal effort.)
Adapted for the stage by Duncan Macmillan from his own short story, Every Brilliant Thing gives an account of the narrator’s life in the shadow of his mother’s depression and attempted suicide. When he was seven years old, a trip to visit Mum in the hospital leads the lad to start “the list”: a numbered catalog of “everything brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for.” Haunted forever after by his mother’s despair, the narrator obsessively records all the redeeming features of living. From ice cream, roller coasters, and Super Mario (nos. 1, 6, and 8) to more grown-up wonders when he enters university (no. 9,996: Sex; no. 9,999: Staying Up All Night Talking), the list grows as he does. Paradoxically, the list nears 1 million good things in middle age, just as family tragedies finally catch up with him.
The monologue is simplistic but engaging, and our participation becomes more than mere gimmickry. Donahoe, a stocky bloke with a chipper, appealing demeanor, prompts the audience to recite the list. Cue cards are handed out before the show, and the actor is very clear about telling you what you need to do when you need to do it. The night I attended, my fellow spectators called out their lines with precision and hardly missed a beat; Donahoe gently re-cued the few who were caught off guard. Others participated by standing in for figures in the story, becoming a teacher, doctor, or family member. A woman who agreed to make her hand into a sock puppet gave a deeply moving — and utterly spontaneous — performance as the boy’s empathetic teacher in their shared scene.
This collectively performed list serves as the narrator’s survival mechanism. He fears succumbing to the feelings his mom did. Ultimately, the suffering adult tells us, “alongside the anger and incomprehension is something more frightening, which is an absolute crystal-clear understanding of why someone would no longer want to continue living.” Director George Perrin immerses us in the character’s musical sanctuaries: Evocative memories come from song fragments by recording artists his father taught him to love: Ray Charles. Ornette Coleman. Billie Holiday.
The emotional cleverness of Every Brilliant Thing lies in the communal constellation it forms around an ordinary man’s account of depression. Drawn into his memories and music, we realize that our actions keep him — and this show — aloft.