Theatre review: Every Brilliant Thing, New Benner Theatre

If you were to compile a list of everything that makes life worth living and truly brilliant, what would it look like?
Every Brilliant Thing. Image is man behind blue swathes to make it look as if he's in a pool. He has a big smile on his face.

Content warning: please note this review of Every Brilliant Thing and the show itself make references to mental health themes, self-harm, suicide and grief.

The theatre is set up in-the-round. Chairs in various sizes, designs, shapes and materials line all four sides, and several carpets decorate a central space. Above, lampshades in different sizes – vintage and contemporary styles – are suspended from the rafters at irregular heights and interspersed by the odd naked bulb or two. 

An element of randomness pervades the space as audience members are handed a card. Mine is numbered 320 and reads “Making up after an argument”. My companion’s number is 23 and reads “Danger mouse”. 

In Every Brilliant Thing, the story begins in the Narrator’s (Tom Yaxley) childhood and develops well into his adult years. It unflinchingly lays out the turmoil and anxiety he feels about his mother’s depression and her numerous attempts at suicide. The audience is rapt as Yaxley dives headlong into his trials and tribulations about dealing with her incessant mental health issues. His solution: make a list of everything that makes life worth living, some of which include ice cream, water fights, things with stripes, wearing a cape, laughing so hard you shoot milk out of your nose and watching someone watch your favourite film. 

What could’ve been a triggering subject is toned down considerably by engaging the audience to participate verbally, and sometimes physically, throughout the 80-minute performance run time. The script is cleverly devised to include a cue from the Narrator. Yaxley calls out a number and an audience member will respond by reading from a card, many of which celebrate the small joys and moments of beauty in a lifetime, aka “the list”. 

This interaction between Yaxley and the audience definitely takes the edge off this very confronting subject matter while allowing for loads of unabashed, boisterous laughter in the interim.  

Every Brilliant Thing is an immersive theatrical experience. What sets it apart from regular performances is the interactive script that forges a bond between the Narrator and the audience. Although the subject matter is bleak and harrowing at times, the play avoids sentimentality by employing humour to talk about suicide and depression in a responsible way. 

The music selection is mainly classics from yesteryear (cue Ray Charles). But at one point Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 R&B hit ‘Move on Up’ allows for a poignant moment of reflection as Mayfield belts out the words:

Hush now child 
And don’t you cry
Your folks might understand you
By and by
Just move on up
Towards your destination
Though you may find, from time to time

>Curtis Mayfield ‘Move on Up’ 1970

Under the direction of Timothy Wynn, Yaxley’s performance as the Narrator is exceptional and very convincing, especially when he relates his mother’s struggle using several different vantage positions from where the audience is seated to get his point across. This authentic approach lends an ordinariness to the script by inviting the audience to participate in Yaxley’s journey, and not be mere onlookers. 

By employing this method of delivering the dialogue, the reality of the overarching impact of mental health struggles and the traumatic after effects on life moving forward are even more relatable to the audience. 

Unlike most theatre productions, the lights remain on throughout the entire performance. Instead of feeling discomfort, it enhances the intimacy and encourages a sense of communal bonding and sharing unashamedly a more often than not taboo subject.  

Dialogue is what drives a play. However, in some instances, this is lost depending on Yaxley’s position and also taking into account that some audience members are unable to properly project their voice. 

But, overall, the Queensland premiere of Duncan MacMillan’s acclaimed UK play is an entertaining, engaging theatre experience. It takes the audience on an unrestricted journey into the very ordinary and mundane aspects of depression and suicide, minus the sensationalism or glorification that one might often encounter.    

Read: Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Belvoir St Theatre

In spite of the challenging subject, Every Brilliant Thing is raw, visceral, authentic and entertaining. Every performance is unique due to the interactive nature of the script and reliant on the participation of the audience. It offers an insight into the universal elements of living and the reasons to keep on going. 

Having a list as a guide is an apt reminder to cherish every little, brilliant thing in spite of the odds. 

Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Presented by Metro Arts and THAT Production Company
Director: Timothy Wynn
Cast: Jason Klarwein and Tom Yaxley
Production Designer: Eva Fritz
Lighting Designer: Nathaniel Knight
Sound Designer: Wil Hughes
Mental Health Associate: Charleen Marsters
Stage Manager: Aimee Boyd

Every Brilliant Thing is performed at New Benner Theatre, Brisbane from 18-21 October; tickets $39-$45.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Art sparks my imagination. Uplifts my soul. Without it, I would shrivel up and become dust. An aimless wanderer searching for that next theatre fix, book fix, cinema fix. My first play was cathartic in reconciling my past so that I could be present in the present.