It's a challenge to successfully display the effects of such things as suicide, heartbreak and depression on a stage, but James Rowland nailed it in 'Every Brilliant Thing'.
The performance chronicled James' life, from child to adult. We started off by hearing about his first experience with death: getting his dog, Ronnie Barker, put down.
Something that made this performance quite beautiful, among other things, was the audience participation. What's more often than not a daunting, embarrassing element to any given show was, in this piece, rather warming and sweet. Before the show began various audience members were given slips of paper with a number and a few words on them. For example, '2: Water Fights'. We soon found out that each of these was an item on a list of things James began to create as a child, when his mother attempted suicide.
He called out numbers to remind himself of what he had written, and the corresponding audience member read their paper slip aloud. It was a list of every brilliant thing in the world, and as the performance progressed and James got older, the list grew until it was thousands and thousands of entries long. Having random audience members around the room calling out different brilliant things was a wonderful way to hear the list from an outsider's perspective.
James also called on members of the crowd to play the roles of characters in his life. I played the vet that put Ronnie Barker to sleep (which was very sad), a man across from me played James' dad, a woman near that man played his girlfriend. Each audience member was willing to participate as well, which helped this concept a lot.Image © Darren Thomas
James was captivating in his storytelling. The way he spoke about figuring out he was sad, the way he reflected on parts of his life... It was gripping. And in the intimate space of the Cremorne Theatre, it was clear that the majority of the audience thought so too.
We learned that he had been sad most of his life, without realising it. We learned that his primary school teacher knew he was sad as a child, even when he didn't think he was. It was heartbreaking, it was eye-opening, but it was real. It showed depression as a real, human issue and it wasn't melodramatic like a lot of theatre shows can be.
Looking around the room I could see that James' performance has struck a chord with many audience members. This is not to say that melodrama and overacting can't communicate depression and sadness. They can. But in a smaller theatre with a more intimate crowd, James' way of storytelling worked like a charm.
'Every Brilliant Thing' was a poignant, stark work of theatre which addressed real human issues with a wink and a smile. This meant the balance between sad and happy throughout the hour was finely tuned, and I left this show feeling melancholy, heartbroken, impressed and entertained all at once.
'Every Brilliant Thing' plays Queensland Performing Arts Centre until 11 March, and Adelaide Festival Centre from 14-18 March.