There’s a key moment in the middle of Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahue’s wildly successful, consistently funny and surprisingly uplifting solo play about a child grappling with their mother’s suicide attempts. The performer who plays the role of the child and narrates their story – in Belvoir’s production it’s Kate Mulvany – offers one piece of advice for anybody contemplating suicide: “Don’t do it.”
Why? Because things get better. They mightn’t always get brilliant, but they will get better.
It’s not the most profound piece of advice, and it’s unlikely to actually bring somebody back from the brink, but any piece of theatre that tries to provide a solution to life’s toughest challenges is doomed to fail. Every Brilliant Thing is more concerned with bringing together a group of people to hear one person’s experiences and deal with the social complexities of mental health with empathy and good humour.
The play was originally performed by Donahue, but at Belvoir the character has been gender-swapped for Mulvany’s unique talents. When this character was seven years old, her mother made her first suicide attempt, or, as her father informed her, she did “something stupid”. The child’s response? She started to write a list of all the brilliant things in the world, starting with ice cream, water fights and staying up past your bedtime to watch TV.
Of course, simply being reminded of the brilliant things in the world will never be enough to save somebody from suicide or alleviate depression, but for a seven year old told their mother couldn’t think of anything she wanted to live for, the list made a lot of sense.
Over the course of her life, she kept returning to the list and adding to it, with different segments taking on different meanings as she grew up and faced her own struggles.
Mulvany tells this story with enormous warmth and great humour, involving the audience in every key moment. It’s a show that’s heavy on audience participation – and the Belvoir space has been reconfigured so that the audience is sitting in the round – but Mulvany’s generosity will make you all too happy to jump in when required. She needs your help to tell the story and bring certain moments to life; whether you’re playing a character or simply reading from a card, you feel utterly safe in her hands.
And that’s not necessarily an easy task for a performer in this situation. In director Kate Champion’s production, the lights stay up on the audience for the entire performance. Steve Rodgers is the co-director, but you could credit Mulvany with the same title, given that it’s her job to direct a new audience in their performances every single night.
It’s an impressive feat, only surpassed by the play’s ability to take a difficult subject, expose it to the open air, and still create an affirming and brightly funny piece of theatre.
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