I’ve decided to make a list of Brilliant Things:
1) Leah Aspden’s acting.
2) Play structures that are really easy to replicate in your review.
3) Really funny improv.
Improvised audience interaction is mandated in Duncan Macmillan’s script for Every Brilliant Thing, and Aspden deals with it excellently, carrying off extended improv sequences with audience members with impressive humour and skill. Even in instances where the audience members concerned didn’t exactly go where the script led them (for example, on the night I saw it, the audience member chosen to play the protagonist’s partner declining a wedding proposal), she redirected the scene effectively. It is true that the mechanics of these changes were obvious to the audience, but the casual and conversational style of these scenes permits a drawing-back of the curtain; there is no fourth wall to be broken.
4) Convincing and well-timed mood shifts.
5) Innovative Pilch configuration.
For a venue with no set seating configurations, it is surprising how few productions take the leap and put the Pilch in the round. This was absolutely the right show to do it. It is difficult to imagine EBT being staged any other way, as the perambulatory style requires the audience to surround the performer. The audience interaction, too, demands that the audience are able to see each other – this all worked excellently in the Pilch.
6) Audience participation that, on the whole, works well.
7) Plays in the round where the actor makes the most of the space.
8) Intelligent and well-written scripts.
Macmillan’s script skilfully balances humour and seriousness, and conveys with precision the complex emotions the protagonist feels throughout the piece. It is a sensitive exploration of guilt, grief, and self-reflection, and Aspden lets it lead her with grace. The conversational tone and improvised sections allow, however, for slips and pauses in the performance, moments where – for a second – the actor loses their thread before picking it up again. Aspden’s performance contained a few such moments, where she would occasionally forget a word or let the character fall, but the nature of the script transformed them from flaws to quirks, charming the audience with the acknowledgment of performance.
9) Music that adds to, rather than detracts from, the action.
It was primarily illustrative: for example, there is a scene where the protagonist lists various musicians and songs, and a small section is played from each one – this choice was essential in conveying mood to the audience. The script is rather intellectual (requiring knowledge of, for example, Mahler, or The Sorrows of Young Werther), and choosing to illustrate the pieces listed meets the audience on an equal footing. Moreover, it creates a diversity of expression which well matches the patchwork, collage-like aesthetic of the whole production. It is worth mentioning, however, that the musical aspects of audience interaction were some of the more difficult to pull off; if the audience member you have chosen doesn’t happen to know the lyrics of the song you’d like them to sing, you’re in a bit of a difficult situation. This and the construction of the piano from members of the audience, were perhaps the moments where the performance felt least secure, and the inclusion of audience became a hindrance to the storytelling.
10) Excellent comic timing.
11) The ability to do all the heavy lifting in an improv segment.
12) Low-pressure and engaging actor-audience connection.
13) Cosy, relaxed sets that help create a comfortable vibe.
The inclusion in the seating of a mismatched collection of armchairs, beanbags, and cushions, created effectively a relaxed atmosphere and sense of community. The feeling in the Pilch was more akin to that of a welcoming and well-funded JCR than to the austerity of a black-box theatre.
14) Pre-show audience interaction.
15) Well-timed and paced shows.
16) Being able to laugh about harrowing situations.
17) Plays that feel like stand-up comedy in Common Ground.
One of the absolute strengths of this production is that – though certainly innovative in its use of the space it is given – it creates a new space that nevertheless seems familiar. Everything about the production will have been, for each member of the audience, reminiscent of a real-life situation they have been in. This skilfully brings the action and text of the play home to each audience member; not only are we being spoken to directly as an audience, but also as individuals. While this makes some aspects of the script (particularly the protagonist’s advice to not commit suicide, and the explanation of the Samaritans*) sound a little like public service announcements, they nevertheless are extremely impactful. This performance of Every Brilliant Thing may indeed have succeeded where so many productions fail, in that I believe it is likely to have made a lasting impression on every single person who has watched it.
18) Including crew in the action.
19) Working with the script rather than for it.
20) Pretending that 20 is the same as one million as though reviews don’t have word limits (because if they didn’t, we would be here that long).
*The Samaritans are a mental health support charity and helpline, who can be contacted by phone at 116 123 or by email at [email protected]