By Guy Webster
The Lennox Theatre, reimagined as an amphitheatre, is warmly lit as Steve Rodgers hands out various coloured pieces of paper to the audience. Ice Cream, Hugs, Really Good Oranges. Each of these pieces is labelled with one brilliant thing that makes life worth living. We find out early in the performance that they began as a way for our unnamed character to cope, at seven years-old, with his mother’s mental ill-health. As the show progresses, these titular ‘brilliant things’ pull the show forward through his life as he navigates mental health. And with one brilliant thing in hand (700: Laughing so hard milk spurts out of your nose), I was also well and truly pulled along with him.
As an audience member you are never given any time to separate yourself from the performance as a spectator in the dark. The house-lights stay up for most of the performance – or rather a carefully curated version of house-lights – so there’s no opportunity to hide behind the safety of a fourth wall. Steve Rodgers is a skilful improviser, and his heartfelt interactions with us are an utter joy to behold. When he asked an audience member ‘How you know I’m happy’, we got one of the hardest hitting moments of the night:
‘I know you’re happy because of the tinkle in your eyes, and the beautiful way you tell stories.’
And there really is boundless amounts of happiness in the stories he tells. From tense family dinners, jazzy dance numbers, University lectures, and struggling relationships, writers Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe have created a portrait of a life filled with honesty and wit in equal measure.
It speaks to Steve Rodgers’ talent as a performer that he can manage the audience so expertly during these stories. With quick ad-libs and a natural warmth, he doesn’t break the fourth wall but rather encourages us to step through it. Once there, we become characters in his story. We become a very real representation of the importance of relationships, of a sense of togetherness, for one’s relationship with mental health.
There are, however, times when the transitions between various scenes stumble (usually as a result of the enduring levity of a surprising ad lib, or an ill-formed segue). And while the repeated ‘Brilliant Things’ punctuates the piece, there is little in the way of tension or a sense of propelling energy that moves the performance forward. Director Kate Champion has ensured that the space is filled warmly, so you don’t notice the faltering drive or disjointed transitions.
But it’s hard to ignore the unanswered details about character in the central story. Namely, it’s his interjections of statistical evidence about mental ill-health, and details about his family, that never receive any significant justification, detail, or characterisation. This noticeable absence could be a larger metaphor for the way to discuss mental ill-health (he reads the guidelines for representing mental health early on) but it does raise questions about the sincerity of the piece. Unfortunately, as these questions build the strength of key emotional beats in the performance are compromised a bit.
In the end, the brilliant thing about ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ rests, importantly, with the audience. Audience participation really is such a tough nut to crack, but the team behind Every Brilliant Thing handles it expertly. Together, we high-five, laugh, dance, and even have our Riverside Theatre snacks used as props. As a result, you end up leaving the theatre feeling warm, hopeful, and part of a group of people that, in the end, are another ‘brilliant thing’ to behold.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.