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Young Creatives Blog

Katie McAllister: Every Brilliant Thing Review

Friday 26 February 2016

  • Review

When you are seven and you find out your Mum has tried to kill herself, the most logical thing to do is to write a list of every brilliant thing in the world to remind her that life is worth living. 

  1. Ice cream
  2. Falling over
  3. Old people who aren’t smelly, who give you chocolate
  4. Stripy things

The list grows to one million brilliant things, as the boy tries to find ways to remind his Mum to find beauty in living. The fact that she would return the lists with grammatical changes was proof enough she was reading them and they could be working.

I have always been annoyed at the lack of mental health issues in films, theatre or books. When people are writing character traits, it seems like ‘brown hair’ or ‘likes pistachio ice cream’ are the important traits to make a character human, unique and relatable. If we throw in ‘has anxiety’ or ‘has suffered from depression’ then, clearly, the whole film or play has to become about those illnesses, and then it probably has to be French or art house and play at independent cinemas, seen by a specific audience who were probably speaking about these ideas anyway. When theatre normalises these issues – by giving someone a mental illness, but not making the entire play about that issue, we begin to tell people that their mental illness does not entirely define them.

Every Brilliant Thing was entirely defined by mental illness. But it was one of the most hilarious and affirming plays I have ever seen. Even though we knew we’re only seeing this play because of an attempted suicide and its repercussions for a family, the fact that the narrator probably had post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety were not his most engaging character traits. We focused on his humour, his warmth, his love of vinyl records and determination to find the little things that made life worth living. 

Jonny Donahoe used the audience to tell the story. At the beginning of the play, he walked around the theatre, handing out pieces of paper that had different ‘brilliant things’ written on them. During the play, he would call out a number from the list and some one would reply with the entry – ‘The smell of cut grass.’  He used audience members to play his father, his counsellor, a vet and his wife; we were so very much a part of the show.

The list wasn’t enough to save the narrator’s Mum from committing suicide. It wasn’t enough to stop the narrator going through his own intense anxiety.   Because ultimately, someone with manic depression needs psychiatric care, not a long list filled with things like, ‘Ice cream on hot days,’ and a child with a mother who has committed suicide needs therapy. But the beauty, the fun and the humour in making the most out of a tragic situation is what makes this play beautiful. A seven year old boy did everything he could to save his Mum, he couldn’t. But the play wasn’t about that – it was about the colour the sky turns at sunrise, the feeling of a hug from someone who loves you and the joy of sitting in a theatre and being part of something brilliant.