Created by the playwright Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahoe (who also first performed it), EVERY BRILLIANT THING is an engaging play of a hybrid nature. It’s not a traditional one-person play. It’s part story, part standup and part improv. It’s a unique offering that invites the audience to join a boy on his comedic and heartfelt journey to manhood as he shares a 'diary' of hope on the way.
The first time I read EVERY BRILLIANT THING was the day my cat got sick: In my heart I knew he was departing soon over that rainbow bridge, lying asleep in my lap as I sat on the ground outside in the sunlight with him, reading every word of this beautiful play, tears rolling down my eyes yet a smile somehow creeping into my heart too. Somehow this play has the power to bring extremes of sadness and joy together in perfect harmony to produce the prospect of hope in a world that very desperately needs it even (if not more so) in the small moments of being utterly human and broken…
EVERY BRILLIANT THING offers its audience a lot in terms of laughter, warmth, and sincerity. But it offers you even more if you are open to seeing yourself as a willing participant, a friend or acquaintance of the boy baring his soul in this production, rather than just a distant observer.
I usually shy away from audience participation plays, but the inviting way in which EVERY BRILLIANT THING is structured creates a sense of familiarity even though the play deals with the very heavy subject of suicide. The subject matter may be heavy, but the engagement level is never dark in tone. That, along with the pacing of the play, allows you to let your guard down and truly enjoy the journey that this production offers.
It’s a boy’s journey of hope, focussing on the small things and moments in life that make it brilliant… ice cream, the colour yellow, a sock puppet ‘shrink’… the list is endless if you truly embrace the possibilities. In making the list, the character explores the impact of his mother’s depression (and related suicide attempts) on her, but also, inadvertently, on him and his relationships with others. In the end, the list he makes for his mother to help her find happiness in everyday things with childlike wonder has unpredictable ripple effects in the lives of so many others.
Miguel De Sampaio’s performance is unquestionably heartfelt. He reveals a natural ease in stepping into the character’s mindset and that adds to the list’s magic of discovery on offer in this local staging of EVERY BRILLIANT THING. It’s a lovely, high energy, all-heart theatre experience, but it can offer even more of a personal layer in the way it is devised and staged, as small choices (as the list reveals) can have a big impact.
I have always been vocal about the misplaced used of a preset (where you walk into a play with actors already onstage in character), as this so easily becomes more gimmick than intentionally purposive. However, EVERY BRILLIANT THING has always been the exception to the rule for me, as the play can only truly thrive as full rounded theatrical experience if there is a space made for the performer to interact with his audience before the story truly unfolds. The maker-of-the-list needs an opportunity to interact with audience members to gauge to what extent he can call on them to be an active participant in his performance, as well as invite others to be custodians of certain additions to his list until they are called upon to share those by shouting out the contributions when prompted.
In the current staging, De Sampaio introduces himself as the boy at the door to the venue space as you walk in. This doesn’t really give him the opportunity to engage sufficiently to know where to pitch what aspect of participation to any particular audience member. It also creates a bit of a logistical bottleneck when trying to enter the venue which could trigger unnecessary anxiety and frustration, when what you actually need is to facilitate an easy entrance that allows your audience to enter with an open-mind.
The type of pre-show interaction required for EVERY BRILLIANT THING would be better served if De Sampaio mingles with the audience members already inside the venue once they have chosen their seats (which gives them a sense of control over their environment). That simple change will make a big difference and give him the opportunity to engage with audience members verbally, while also reading body language and picking up small nuances that could impact the way the play unfolds in any given performance. The same way a comedian reads his audience, the boy in EVERY BRILLIANT THING must read his – there is method to the ‘madness’ of this technique if one considers that the play was developed in part and performed by a comedian who definitely understands the importance of pitching the right joke to the right portion of (or even person in) his audience. Such a small change in staging would give De Sampaio an opportunity to gauge, for example, if anyone recently lost a pet, to know not to call on that person when he relates the part of tale that speaks to the loss of his beloved dog, Sherlock Bones: Giving yourself the proper opportunity to read your audience is as important to this production as it is performing the words.
A show full of humorous moments, EVERY BRILLIANT THING carries Macmillan’s trademark easy tone (he somehow has a way to unpack the difficulties in life in a way that leaves you with a sense of comfort, understanding, and at times even joy). When you get a playwright with such a clear voice, one should fight the urge to tamper with the script. The current staging does a great job at paying homage to Macmillan’s vision until the point when they fall into the trap to try and tamper with the script to localise it a bit. The additions don’t ring true in Macmillan style or tone; it feels out of place with the flow of the rest of the script. If you are going to tinker with something that’s practically perfect in its structure you have to do so in the same tone, voice and impact level as the original creator. It you have any doubts whether you can do it as good as the original, simply resist that urge to 'improve'.
That all said, I had a lovely time going on the heartfelt journey with De Sampaio as the boy and the key people in his life. As is the case every time I read the play, the performance left me feeling as if I just got a big theatre hug, with a lump in my throat, but also hopeful in knowing that a bad day does not make a bad life. That is part of the magic of EVERY BRILLIANT THING, the brilliance of the narrative outshines the sadness of life and you somehow walk away lighter. I would happily go sit through this intimate, quaint show again. It offers comfort to a tired soul at the end of a crazy year. Bless Macmillan and Donahoe for gifting the world this gem of a play and thank you for the brave team that has brought it to Cape Town at long last.
You have until 2 December 2023 to catch EVERY BRILLIANT THING at LAMTA Studio 1 (Theatre on The Bay) with tickets available online through Quicket.