EVERY BRILLIANT THING
_REVIEW. it’s about _THEATRE. words _ISAAC MILNE. at _CLAPTRAP THE VENUE. tickets _OFFICIAL SITE. booking until _31st AUG 2021.
Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing is a piece of writing like no other. The play is a single monologue delivered by a nameless ‘Narrator’, who initially tells us the story of their mother’s first attempt at suicide. The Narrator then describes their childhood response of assembling a list of every brilliant thing in the world, in order to try and convince their mum that life was worth living.
It is this list that forms the bones of the play, and as the narrator grows older, and the list grows longer, Macmillan guides us through a story of pain and bliss.
The show’s distinctiveness is in its structure – throughout, the narrator is constantly drawing on the audience to be part of the story, relying on them to inhabit and voice the various characters involved. Additionally, on arrival, each audience member is also given a post-it note which has, written on it, one of the brilliant things from the list, so that when the Narrator calls out your number during the piece, you must announce the new addition to the list.
Therefore, whilst there is a script, the play requires, and thrives on, the responses and actions of its audience, making every performance different. It is also written as a blank slate – Macmillan’s text specifically identifies that the Narrator can be of any age, race or gender, and that the text should be adapted to fit the casting, location of performance and any other relevant factors. With so many options and such a wide scope of unpredictability, it’s therefore a huge undertaking for any performer and theatre company, so, the fact that Stourbridge-based Pop-Up Theatre’s production not only succeeds, but truly excels, is an achievement of immense proportion.
Playing the role of Narrator here is Livvi Parsons, a young, bright, and energetic actress, brimming with enough character to fill a stadium theatre, let alone Claptrap the Venue’s intimate and eclectic arrangement of armchairs and barstools. In such a demanding role, Parsons’ work is nothing short of exquisite. Her take on the nexus around which everything pivots is enthralling: bubbly, cheeky, and optimistic in the face of adversity, yet measured and plain-speaking too. Parsons uses her youth to her advantage, but doesn’t slip into a sense of naivety that would restrict the emotions to a more surface level.
She is honest and soulful too, and her ability to switch between the two produces some beautiful moments of sobering reality. With Macmillan’s writing celebrating both the joys and sorrows of living, Parsons deftly balances the tragedy and comedy, ensuring she hits every emotional beat with full force, whilst also being shrewd and instinctive enough as a performer to not allow the audience to wallow or become too consumed with emotion, instead, coming in at the right moment with plenty of warm knowing-smiles and belly laughs.
Essential to the success of the play, Parsons’ interaction with the audience is equally as adept as the moments of more conventional performance. A little nervous energy crept in at first, but this was soon replaced with total confidence. Sometimes required in the most upsetting, or funniest, moments of the play, she allows each audience member time to discover and follow their instincts but doesn’t allow them to flounder, nor overshadow or mislead the narrative.
Every Brilliant Thing is not the first time director Naomi Coleman has tackled ambitious and emotional theatre in an ‘amateur’ arena. See, for instance, her impressive 2019 production of After the End (pictured above).
It’s a delicate balancing act, but one she handles with aplomb; on multiple occasions surrendering control altogether, producing some deeply honest moments, and across the wide range of different interactions, she proves capable of handling whatever is given to her, carefully and expertly weaving it into the narrative and emotional trajectory of the given moment.
This ability to capitalise on everything the audience provide, unexpected or otherwise, bypasses any sense of awkwardness that can often come hand-in-hand with audience participation, instead achieving the overall effect of drawing the entire audience in and guiding them in a way that balances intuition and improvisation with enough direction to maintain a sense of purpose. It’s an astounding level of control for an actor to have, particularly one so young, and successfully gives a sense of heart and honesty that the audience cannot help but be deeply involved with.
On the surface it would be easy to suggest that this is all Parsons’ masterwork, and whilst she is exceptional, the role of director Naomi Coleman, Artistic Director of Pop-Up Theatre, is also clear in Every Brilliant Thing’s effectiveness. Coleman’s careful consideration of pace, blocking and sound cues lay out all the instruments in the right places for Parsons to make the most with. Her skilled direction has intense clarity in all elements of the piece, which combine to achieve the various desired effects in a precise, powerful and complex way, whilst still allowing the piece to breathe and be malleable in the way its unique approach requires.
Faced with a text that has the potential to be overbearingly heavy for its audience, Coleman confidently unearths the moments of comedy, love and laughter within the tragedy. A noticeable trademark of Pop-Up’s work and Coleman’s direction, she clearly prioritises an acute sense of honesty, in any and every emotion on show; creating a genuine empathy and an unadulterated, still involving, reality, that is deeply affecting for her audience. A core element of what makes the play successful is that Coleman’s direction excels in its precision – she knows that it’s not about throwing generalised emotions at you, it’s about pinpointing the crux of each scene, moment or line – the thing that truly hurts, is truly special, is the most honest – and presenting it without judgement, but with its full force of weight and meaning.
As a whole, Every Brilliant Thing leaves you lost for words when it reaches its conclusion; it’s amusing and warming, whilst underscored by a deep hurt, and there’s something almost intangible about its impact; sitting just out of reach. It is difficult to not walk away feeling as though one has witnessed and shared something incredibly personal and special, and duly warmed and privileged by the fact that, to some degree, it was one unique to you and those around you.
Macmillan sits amongst the leading writers of his age, and it is talents like Parsons and Coleman who showcase it to its best and fullest. It proves that amateur, home-grown theatre like Pop-Up can challenge that of any long-standing, award-winning, national-touring company. It is precisely productions and plays of this calibre that make it almost infuriating that gems such as this one will be seen by so few, but they also affirm, with no doubt, that live theatre itself is truly one of life’s brilliant things.