Content warning: discussion of suicide and mental health
For a play beginning with the first suicide attempt of the narrator’s mother, Spare Room Productions’ take on Every Brilliant Thing strikes a staggering balance between serious and joyful. Intrinsically this is a play about loss, about guilt, and about how one continues on after trauma – thankfully these themes are handled with a great deal of nuance and care. However, this production is also hilariously funny, and epitomises the feeling of laughing so you don’t cry.
This is a play about a list: a list of “brilliant things” began by the narrator as a seven-year-old, in order to convince his mother that there are things worth living for. From the first entry of “ice cream”, to later entries like “falling in love” and “sex”, the list grows with the narrator, played by Harry Berry. The list creates a vital synergy between the otherwise episodic scenes from the narrator’s life. The play moves seamlessly between more serious discussions of suicide to lighter topics, like first love, for which director Jamie Murphy ought to be commended.
Harry Berry’s ability to sustain this play is astounding, especially considering the lack of other actors or any real set to aid him. The narrator is a challenging role, requiring both comedic timing and seriousness of expression, but Berry’s performance meets the high bar with a portrayal that is equal parts funny, vulnerable, and compelling. In my view, the character is less strong in the opening sections, but this is largely due to the need to establish the format of the play with its interactive elements.
An outstanding aspect of the play is its employment of audience participation. Each audience member was given at least one “brilliant thing” on a post-it note (or a spoon, or even carved into a baguette) upon entering. By encouraging the audience to read these out when the number was mentioned in the play, the list became ours as well. In a way, describing this play as a one-man show feels slightly disingenuous. Audience members were often brought into the centre to play the other characters in the narrator’s life – his dad, the vet that put down his dog, his girlfriend at university – and these brief moments of improvisation balanced the play’s otherwise serious subject matter. Props were also sourced from the audience, leading to a hilarious discussion of a book on potatoes. The fact that these moments will inevitably be different on each night of the show’s run is a huge draw, and Harry Berry’s abilities as a spontaneous comedic actor particularly shines through during these interactions with the audience.
The production of the play was seamless, in particular the use of music, which is central to the play’s plot. The jazz soundtrack is timeless and enjoyable, and the narrator’s joyful response to it is contagious. Upon entering, the minimal nature of the set was visually striking in contrast with the vibrancy of a stage littered with multi-coloured post-it notes. The arrangement of the audience in a circle also encouraged the feeling created throughout the play that the audience are part of the story, that the list is also ours.
The subject matter of this show is serious, which the cast and Spare Room Productions emphasise before and after the show. Their nuanced and considered approach is a real credit to them. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the play, whilst not graphic in its depiction of suicide, does discuss some methods and the effect of suicide attempts on others.
For a play about suicide, I left the Pilch thinking about what I would add to the list – and that’s the real beauty of this show. It would be so easy for Every Brilliant Thing to only be morose, and the fact that this production struck the balance so well between uplifting and serious is a testament to its success. I thoroughly enjoyed this play and, if you feel up to the content, I would highly recommend that you grab a ticket for it.