Many of us have been affected by suicide at some point in our lives. And even more of us have experienced depression personally or else seen at least one member of our close circle torn apart by it.
So, how do you create a performance that takes on this very subject whilst managing to retain lightness and humour? With Every Brilliant Thing, writer Duncan Macmillan more than manages to balance the devastating with the hilarious, the disturbing with the heart-warming, and Jonny Donahoe delivers this with a sense of fun that is both sensitive and conspiratorial.
As our unnamed narrator, Donahoe takes us back to when he was seven years old, the first time his mother attempted to kill herself, an act that leaves the sad little boy wanting to make her feel better. Needing her to see how very excellent life can be, he creates a list of all the brilliant things he can think of: ice-cream; Dangermouse; balloons, people falling over …
Performed in the round of the Tobacco Factory Theatre, we are the support group and audience participation is key to the success of the show. I’d go so far as to say that it probably wouldn’t be half as good as it is without us. In advance of pacing the empty space before us, a large area in which he constantly spins to make sure each and every one of us is a living, breathing part of his confessional, Donahoe hands out slips of paper with a number and a brilliant thing written upon each one; every time he shouts out a number (anything up to a million!), the relevant audience member responds by reading out another item in the list that exists to encourage his mother to carry on living – the way Ray Charles sings ‘you’, being able to stay up past your bedtime to watch TV, and (sob) Me.
A few of us have more defined, acting roles (don’t worry, he doesn’t pull up random people during the show, permission is secured beforehand), so that, as the play progresses through the narrator’s life and the list takes on its own energy, we meet/become pivotal people along the way, including the vet who puts down his fabulously named dog, the teacher who helps him get through the pain and, ultimately, the love of his life, his wife. The man who played his Dad, though, deserves a special mention, because his repetitive use of a one-word question was close to chilling and very convincing. Bravo, man in the front row of last night’s audience.
For me, one of the funniest moments is when Donahoe asks for two books that happen to be in our bags. A woman hands him Sylvia Plath, “No, not Sylvia Plath! Anything but Sylvia Plath!” cries Donahoe. It made me regret not having with me my current reading book, written by another famous female suicidee, Virginia Woolf.
This isn’t all giggles, mind you. With this unlikely subject matter, how could it be? Depression is no easy ride and, for some of us the guilt and helplessness of not having been able to prevent the suicide of a loved one will resonate, for others the forever sadness of living with a person who could end it all at any moment will break our hearts into tiny pieces and few of us will be able to hold in the tears whilst listening to Macmillan’s excellent script. An emotive subject, without doubt, but one told with such tenderness and humanness that it makes you very, very pleased to be alive.
Every Brilliant Thing shows at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 10th October