Every Brilliant Thing

Written on January 26th, 2020

Rebecca Northan Shines with Audience Interaction

In a one-woman show, improv expert Rebecca Northan shares the stage with a dozen or so audience members she conscripts to complete the cast.  Apparently, no one can say no to Northan as she gets full cooperation from the audience members, some with surprisingly good acting skills.

Northan wowed audiences two years ago with Blind Date where she pulled the latest love of her life from the Grand’s attendees.  She is now in the McManus Theatre downstairs at the Grand in a touching play, Every Brilliant Thing

It’s a good script – but then I don’t know how far it has strayed from the original writing with Northan’s improvisation. 

The story starts with Northan playing a seven-year-old girl whose dog, Sherlock Bones, has to be put down by the veterinarian.  A man in the audience is selected to play the vet, and Northan explains this was her first experience with death.  Next, she is picked up at school by her father because her mother has, in his words, “done a stupid thing”.  As Northan narrates the story, we learn that this was her mother’s first suicide attempt.  When the child learns that her mother was sad (her early understanding of depression) she decides to make a list of Every Brilliant Thing.  She starts writing down whatever might make her mother happy, starting with ice cream. 

(Spoiler alert – skip the next two paragraphs.)

In college, Northan continues the list with her boyfriend, another recruit from the audience.  They marry and apparently are very happy.  But soon she, herself, is depressed.  After the marriage fails, we learn of her mother’s death on her third suicide attempt. 

The story feels a little unfinished – her estranged husband reaches out and contacts her with his sympathy when her mother dies.  He asks to see her again, but we never learn if she responds. 

The lower lobby has been transformed into the character’s 1980 family home with harvest gold appliances, a kitchen table, and the “kitchen piano”, which is talked about in the play.  Her father’s office is off to the side.  As the theatregoers arrive, Northan circulates in the lobby, handing out recipe cards with lines written on them. 

So we see the space before we get in to see the play, where there is no set and limited props.  The lights stay bright for the entire show, allowing Northan can see all the audience members who encircle her stage area. 

Sometimes Northan’s switch in and out of character is a bit jarring.  She has to look around to find cast mates – vet, father, teacher, professor, boyfriend, and so on.  When she splits up a couple who came to the theatre together and moves the young woman to a far corner so she can pretend the young man is her boyfriend, it seems a little discourteous.  These interruptions in the story need to be smoothed out.  I am a theatregoer who objects to anything that pulls my attention away from the plot. 

Taking on suicide in a play that is otherwise a comedy could be disturbing, but Every Brilliant Thing does it successfully.  The issue of suicide as a social contagion is even discussed, and the audience is educated on the concerns.  Between hearing this important message and watching Northan’s amazing talent for improvisation, Every Brilliant Thing is well worth seeing. 

Every Brilliant Thing continues on the McManus Stage, Grand Theatre, London until February 2.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com

Photo: Rebecca Northan (centre) recruiting audience members in Every Brilliant Thing.  Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Every Brilliant Thing
By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Liza Balkan
Performed by Rebecca Northan.
McManus Stage, Grand Theatre, London
January 21 to February 2, 2020
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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