Ice cream. Water fights. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. UK playwright Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing is about a list of the wonderful things, small and large, that make life worth living.

“The list began after her first attempt,” Kate Mulvany tells the audience at Belvoir St Theatre, who are sitting in the round with the house lights up, several clutching pieces of coloured paper.

Every Brilliant Thing, Belvoir St Theatre, Kate MulvanyKate Mulvany in Belvoir St Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing. Photo © Brett Boardman

Macmillan based the play on his short story Sleeve Notes, first performed by Rosie Thomson, which the writer, along with director George Perrin, built into a full-length play over a period of ten years (during which time it also appeared as an installation). Jonny Donahoe premiered Every Brilliant Thing at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, and his creation of the play live on stage in front of hundreds of audiences as it toured – eventually to the 2016 Perth Festival and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre – earned him a billing as co-writer. A show for solo actor, Macmillan specifies that the nameless narrator “can be played by a woman or a man of any age or ethnicity”, which is just one of many elements that can be adapted, often on the fly, to create unique, varied and personal performances.

With the help of the audience – some of whom have been given cards with ‘brilliant things’ to call out when their number comes up and others who are drawn into the performance in ingenious ways I won’t spoil here – Mulvany, as narrator, shares her story of a childhood shadowed by her mother’s depression, the lingering impact of suicide attempts, and the simple but poignant resilience embodied by the list, started by a seven-year-old girl and carried on into adulthood.

Every Brilliant Thing, Belvoir St Theatre, Kate MulvanyKate Mulvany in Belvoir St Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing. Photo © Brett Boardman

Like the vinyl records that are a recurring, almost tactile motif throughout the play, Every Brilliant Thing has a low-tech, analogue simplicity – there is no set, house lights are on (though there are some subtly deployed lighting changes, designed by Amelia Lever-Davidson) and the few props used come from unexpected sources. Director Kate Champion, and co-director Steve Rodgers (who takes over from Mulvany when the play moves to Parramatta) embrace this less-is-more spirit in their production for Belvoir, keeping the focus on the intimate storytelling driven by Mulvany.

And Mulvany is brilliant. This is a play that requires a narrator who can bring the audience along with them at every moment, and Mulvany does this with a vibrant warmth that’s impossible to resist. She deftly handles the piece’s shifting moods – from absolutely devastating to laugh-out-loud funny – which change on a dime, provoking laughter through tears. She switches effortlessly between childhood comprehension and adult grief, finding gentle humour as well as pathos in poignant moments, such as the euthanasia of a beloved family pet. She drives the play’s snowballing momentum with seemingly endless energy, channelling the music (from free jazz and Ella Fitzgerald to Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go) that weaves through the show.

Every Brilliant Thing, Belvoir St Theatre, Kate MulvanyKate Mulvany in Belvoir St Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing. Photo © Brett Boardman

Suicide is obviously a complex and painful issue – and no doubt there will be audience members who have been affected, either directly or indirectly – but it’s sensitively handled in this piece, without shying away from some of the harder elements. Information about mental health and suicide, its effects on children and families, and the way it’s reported in the media is woven cleverly and organically into the story. But despite its tragic subject matter, Every Brilliant Thing is incredibly uplifting, the audience drawn into a celebration of the things that make life worth living, in a beautiful piece of communal theatre.

One of the things that makes Every Brilliant Thing so effective is that it is different every night, with every audience. There are several moments in the play where interactions with the audience are more open-ended, moments which can be dangerous but which are also part of the magic of this piece, and while Mulvany proved herself ever quick on her feet – there was at least one moment on opening night that I don’t think anyone expected – some of these moments felt ever so slightly safe and controlled, which may well change as the run continues.

Ultimately this is a raw but heartfelt, life-affirming play, and one you won’t soon forget. No doubt plenty in the audience will be rekindling their love of vinyl records after this show, and perhaps some will even start their own lists. At the top of mine is: “Kate Mulvany in Every Brilliant Thing.”

Every Brilliant Thing plays at Belvoir St Theatre until March 31, before playing at Parramatta Riverside Theatres April 3 – 6


If this content has raised any concerns for you, Lifeline offers a 24 hour counselling service and can be reached at 13 11 14. Additional information can be found on their website. Other services which may be of assistance include mental health advocacy organisation, Beyond Blue, 1300 224 636, and youth mental health foundation Headspace. You may also consider speaking to a trusted source or engaging your local GP.

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