Once, during a low moment years ago, I started writing a list of all the things I loved about the world. Big things, small things, silly things. Laughing with friends; walking in the moonlight; the blissful feeling of waking up and realising there’s still another hour until the alarm goes off. In Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan has done something similar. His list, however, becomes something of a life raft for his protagonist – a way of affirming the beauty of life when it all looks pretty damn ugly.
In the wake of his mother’s first suicide attempt, Macmillan’s unnamed narrator starts a list of all the brilliant things to live for. They range, like life’s experiences, from the profound to the banal. Loved ones through to ice-cream. Throughout his life, the list keeps returning and being added to, transforming from something naively designed to combat his mother’s depression into an act of personal therapy. Whether leaving home, falling in love or falling apart, the list is always there.
This journey is told as a not-quite-monologue. The infectiously warm Jonny Donahoe is the only performer in the piece, but it is equally reliant on its audience. We are the ones who read out the narrator’s catalogue of joy and who stand in for various other characters he encounters along the way. This involvement becomes both metaphor and demonstration of how we are able to find collective comfort and joy, acting as a necessary counterpoint to the stark realisation that it is not always possible to make those you love happy.
Paines Plough’s Roundabout auditorium, meanwhile, is the perfect space for this show. Staged with spare simplicity by George Perrin, it draws on the co-presence and imagination of its audience to make up for the lack of visual stimulation. Music is also a key element, inserting snippets of tracks from the likes of Etta James and Ray Charles and taking the emotional pulse of the drama at key moments. Among life’s brilliant things, songs make up a hefty chunk of the list.
Given the material, Every Brilliant Thing could easily slide into sheer sentimentality. But while there is certainly plenty of sentiment, it’s far from mawkish. Instead, it somehow manages to overlay utter despair with life-affirming joy, looking the realities of depression right in the face at the same time as clinging fiercely onto optimism. And that’s what makes the tears really flow.