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Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Every Brilliant Thing

Paines Plough

Genre: Drama

Venue: Summerhall


Low Down

Paines Plough strikes again. This is one of the simplest, sweetest and most life-affirming hours you’ll experience this August.


Paines Plough have done a brilliant thing by bringing their Roundabout tent to Summerhall this year. It provides a magical, forum-like space in which the words of each play are foregrounded, laid bare, scrutinised and savoured. Monologues are challenging at the best of times, so I was interested to see how Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing would work in the round.
It turns out, well, brilliantly.
As we enter the space, some of the audience are given numbered pieces of paper, which they will be called upon to read out later. Johnny Donahoe, our one man, is keen to assure people ‘it’s not scary, don’t worry.’ And it really isn’t. Even when certain audience members are invited centre stage to play significant characters from his character’s childhood (the vet, the school nurse), Johnny manages to calm them and to charm them into playing the roles with aplomb. We soon learn this is not really a monologue at all.
Every Brilliant Thing is the story of a man who’s made a list of all the good things in life to combat his mother’s and his own depression. It begins in his childhood, moves into his adolescence and university years, sails through marriage and brings us to the present. The wonderfully warm and selfless Johnny Donahoe narrates and plays himself throughout, and members of the audience fill in the gaps. Scenes are invented on the spot with the input of the day’s audience performers. The whole thing is punctuated with items from the list, most of which bring about a wry smile of familiarity. 
As Johnny’s character grows up, the list grows too and his list entries become more specific and more complicated. He also begins to explore the causes and nature of depression. The day I went was the day after the actor Robin Williams was discovered to have taken his own life – it was particularly poignant that Johnny read out the Samaritans’ media guidelines for press coverage of suicides, none of which are respected and none of which have been adhered to in the case of Mr Williams. 
The writing is deft and detailed, the Jazz and Soul soundtrack is warm and nostalgic, the pacing is perfect.
But, above all, the two things which make this play outstanding are the way it makes us all feel like the star of the show, and its simple message.
Every time Johnny Donahoe brings an audience member onto the stage it is to play out a tender or painful moment in his character’s life. Watching the audience member getting selected is funny, watching them take to the stage is nerve-racking, watching them think what to say is tense, then watching them invent something simple and usually perfect is beautiful. The audience collectively laughs, holds their breath, then sighs. He even makes the curtain call about the audience. A very special experience.
As for the message…Johnny learns later that this list of brilliant things can’t fight the illness that is depression. But it makes us, as an audience, take stock, reflect upon the good things in life, remind us to savour them. And when it comes to suicide, Johnny has one thing to say: ‘Don’t do it.’