Every Brilliant Thing

By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. April 3 – 6, 2019 

Reviewed : April 3, 2019

Photo : Daniel Boud

The ‘brilliant thing’ about Every Brilliant Thing is that is could be anybody’s story, as Steve Rodgers has proved in taking over the role from Kate Mulvany in this Belvoir production at Parramatta Riverside Theatre. Rodgers is a consummate actor of stage and screen, and a playwright of note – as those who have seen his plays Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam and King of Pigs will attest – and he has stepped into this unusual role with typical dedication … and the deep sense of responsibility that it demands.

On stage Rodgers has an appeal that is disarmingly natural, an asset in this production where he works surrounded by a floodlit audience that is integral to the sensitive themes of a play that has been produced at several Edinburgh Festivals, toured worldwide and been filmed for television. Why? Because it’s a play about self-harm and suicide, told in a way that is tenderly real and comically touching.

Playwright Duncan Macmillan described what he wanted to say in the play thus: “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it. I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way”. Working in conjunction with comedian Jonny Donahoe, he came up with a format that does just that. It is personal, almost immersive and certainly inclusive. A perfect platform for an actor of Rodgers style and experience.

Dressed as Everyman, he greets the audience as they enter, handing some pieces of coloured card on which are written a number and a word or phrase. “When you hear this number, call out what is written in a loud voice,” he instructs amiably.

Those words or phrases become the list of “Brilliant Things” that underpins the way his character tries to deal with the effect of depression that has beleaguered him since his mother’s first suicide attempt when he was a child of seven. They begin as simple things – ‘ice cream’, ‘wearing a cape’, ‘water fights’ – and become more complex as the story unfolds – ‘peeing in the sea and nobody knows’, ‘dancing in public’, ‘the smell of old books’.

Via the ‘list’, Rodgers moves from storyteller to become that boy following his silent father home from the hospital, the teenager upset and angry, the university student trying to find answers, the shy lover, the lonely divorcee.

At each ‘milestone’ someone from the audience calls out the words on their card, or, more poignantly, is gently invited to become part of the story – a vet, his father, an old couple who befriend him at the hospital, the school counsellor and her sock puppet, a university lecturer, his shy fellow student and eventually his wife. Extraordinarily, no one resists the invitation to be involved, despite the fact they there has been no ‘priming’, no explaining that this will occur. Why are they so amenable?

Perhaps it’s because they are caught in the light rather than behind the ‘dimmed’ fourth wall of a normal theatre. Perhaps it’s the writing. Perhaps it’s Kate Champion’s direction. Perhaps it’s Rodger’s gentle, evocative, believable characterisation. Most probably it’s a combination

of all of these – and the fact that the topic has touched everyone in some way; has become more ubiquitous; more inescapable. And, mercifully, more recognised, more discussed, more medically diagnosed, more caringly tended.

Steve Rodgers makes the story his own, as so many skilful and empathetic actors have done on so many stages to so many audiences around the world. Each has probably made it special in their own way, based on their own experiences and research. Rodgers continues that tradition. His interpretation is caring, gentle; his character loving, just a little awkward, like the topic itself. He reaches beyond that awkwardness and delivers the message with love.