Review: Every Brilliant Thing, Orange Tree Theatre ‘Affecting, Funny and Life-Affirming’

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Oh my. Every Brilliant Thing is wonderful. It has the biggest heart and the biggest laughs. It is affecting and funny; it is heartfelt and touching. I cannot imagine that you will ever see a more life-affirming show about depression.

The show is centred around an unnamed narrator, played by Jonny Donahoe, who recounts his struggles growing up with a mother who suffered with mental illness. He was only seven when his mother attempted suicide for the first time – well, the first time he was aware of. Too young to really grasp the scale of the problem yet old enough to understand that his mum is in a bad way, he tries to lift her spirits by compiling for her a list of things that make him laugh. Things that are cheery. Small things that are worth living for: Rollercoasters and ice-cream, and people falling over.

His suggestions are wonderfully naïve and hopeful; the child-like dreams of a young boy trying desperately to heal his mother’s wounds. And though she resists, the boy decides he is on to a winner, so, he builds on that list. Every year. And as he grows up, so the list expands: Listening to vinyl, inappropriate ringtones going off at emotional moments. Not caring about how much you spend on holiday as the local currency looks like Monopoly money.

As his mother continues to struggle, so the man’s commitment to this list, to promoting the joy to be found in the moment, increases. Friends and colleagues are drawn in, all so willing to contribute. The list expands and seems to develop a life of its own: Dancing in public even though you know you can’t dance, and someone reading a book you lend them. And love. The suggestions tumble forth; a wave of outlets of happiness and moments of joy.

Duncan Macmillan’s writing is smart – it is not arrogant enough to advocate simple solutions, nor does it tip over into sloppy sentimentality. There is always a pang of the pain of reality here. But there’s no doubt that Jonny Donohoe’s performance is the heart and soul of this show. He is so giving and so welcoming. That he can single-handedly turn a theatre into a safe space is testament to his authenticity and genuine affection for the material and those he calls upon in the audience to help him along.

Every Brilliant Thing is a show that puts its arms around you and tells you that, if only for the time you’re in this theatre, everything is going to be OK. It knows that mental illness is complex but its commitment to getting us to look anew at what we overlook and take for granted allows us all to find joy, if only for a moment, in the little things that matter most.

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to October 28, 2017

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