As we entered Ipswich's High Street Exhibition Gallery (HEG) for Every Brilliant Thing
, a man ahead of us asked wearily "Are we going to be read to again?" Like us he had just come from Stand
and, as it turned out, we were going to be read to again. Indeed, we would be doing some of the reading ourselves and this experience was going to be very different indeed.
HEG was built as an extension to Ipswich Museum almost a century ago. It has its own entrance from the street and is accessible from within the museum complex. For a long time it was used for museum storage but a few years ago it was opened up as a performance space; the New Wolsey Young Associates are based there and the New Wolsey uses it to stage shows that need flexible informal seating. For this show there were two rings of seats; all were brightly lit and as we chose our places an unremarkable man in unremarkable clothes (oh alright then: jeans and an untucked open-necked white shirt) was handing out well-worn pieces of paper. Each page bore a number and a handwritten phrase. The pages were varied: torn feint ruled note paper, post-it notes, plain papers of many weights. They were inscribed in many inks. The friendly tubby man asked us to read our phrase when he said our number. This was not a member of the technical crew or the front of house team. This was the star of the one-man show, the co-writer of the script: it was Jonny Donahoe.
When we were settled Donahoe started to tell an intensely personal story of the first time that his mother attempted suicide. He explained that his first experience of death had been the euthanasia of his pet dog. This man in his mid thirties became a seven year old boy. Here the performance made its first step into the remarkable. A member of the audience was asked to provide his jacket as a prop for the ill dog and then to enact the lethal injection of the pet as little Jonny held it in his arms. It could have been bathetic but the scene was touching. When the volunteer vet was too aggressive at his first attempt, Donahoe gently directed him to a more appropriate action. This would be the tenor of the show: apparently unsophisticated mechanics, profound events, repeated grounding of the audience through the fourth wall*, and a gloriously cathartic sense of the absurd.
Other members of the audience became in turn, Jonny's dad, a school counsellor, a lecturer, the girl who would become his wife (and then, sadly) his ex-wife. Jonny explains how he started to make a list of every brilliant thing as his innocent attempt to help his mother ward off depression. It does not work but the list becomes an obsession continued into middle age. It spirals up to a surreal total of a million things. Even had we not been engrossed we would have been driven to pay attention by the knowledge that our turn would come to read an item and, because no show could sustain a million readings, not every number would be called. Often, Jonny would comment on an item after it had been read but at other times the simple sequence carried the narrative.
Every aspect of this performance was a masterwork. I find it hard to believe that it is entirely a work of fiction but I trust author Duncan Macmillan when he makes that assertion and I know that it has been born of a long process. About five years ago I was told about an installation at Latitude Festival where people were encouraged to read aloud from a list of feelgood catalysts pinned to the wall of a tent. I remembered the phrase 'feelgood catalysts' but it was only as I started to write this that I realised that what the man in the pub had described was a precursor to this show. [ETA: A quick Google reveals that it happened at Latitude 2009].
Donahoe's style is extempory; it feels entirely spontaneous. Yet I know that he has performed this script over a hundred times. He is a stand-up comedian who has never been in a play before. He uses his stand-up skills to improvise, to interact directly with individuals in the audience, and to remember just where everything is located. Some of the apparent variables can be constant across the many tour venues but with most dates being single nights there must be huge variations in the staging. In Ipswich the show was in the round but this is not possible everywhere and the shape of each venue will be different. Within all this technical constraint Donahoe delivers an intense emotional journey. As I type about it my throat tightens at the memories even as I feel a smile curling my lips. My distress flowed from parallels with my own life experiences and it was clear that many of us were deeply moved in some way. I saw and heard tears among the rich shared laughter.
In the moment I was entirely absorbed in Jonny's story but upon reflection I realised how privileged we were to see randomly selected people improvise within the framework. They were so good that they could have been plants but these were neighbours and New Wolsey regulars that I recognised. There were safety nets built into the structure: the redirection of the vet's injection, the advice to read the blurb on the back of a book rather than improvise a description of it. The audience performances were excellent. Jonny's girlfriend was delicious in her affection and the school counsellor who used a sock puppet to talk to the child must have worked with children in real ife. This did not feel like 'audience participation'. The audience was involved in a natural way and it is a testament to Donahoe's skill that we saw none of the embarrassed awkardness that is such a common response.
Another key component of the invisible structure was the use of music. Aspects of music feature on the list. Jonny's dad is defined through Jazz and his suicidal mum is characterised by Soul. Some of the music was prerecorded but Donahoe also sang and played keyboard. He was last seen in Ipswich in April fronting Jonny & the Baptists (a comedy band) so his musical ability was no surprise.
Some fifteen years ago I saw Mark Little in his wife's production of Defending the Caveman. There too a gifted comedian delivered someone else's lines as if the one man show was his own spontaneous thoughts. We saw it several times. It would be on my own list of brilliant things. Little toured that show for about a decade and I hope that Donahoe can do the same with Every Brilliant Thing. I never read the text of Defending the Caveman. As we left the theatre, making our own lists, we were offered a copy of Macmillan's playtext for just three quid. I declined. I have enough books and I hope to see the show again because my own list includes 'Every Brilliant Thing performed by Jonny Donahoe'. [ETA: After thinking about the show repeatedly I decided that I did want to read the text. It's cover price is £9.95 and even with my trade discount I had to pay more than twice the theatre price so buy it at a show if you get the chance.]
Commissioned by rural Shropshire theatre group Pentabus for the Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, Every Brilliant Thing toured the UK tour in 2014 and was received enthusiastically at the Edinburgh Fringe. It then transferred to New York for the first quarter of 2015 before a big UK tour. The odds are high that you can catch it somehwere near you if you are in the UK. And, to my mind, you really really should.
*Just where is the fourth wall in theatre in the round?