“It really is one of the most uplifting plays I’ve ever read,” says Alan Park as he stars in Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing

Alan Park: So happy to be performing Duncan Macmillan’s solo show Every Brilliant Thing. Picture: Ben Lindley

YOU are seven years old. Your mum is in hospital. Your dad says she has “done something stupid”. She finds it hard to be happy.

You make a list of everything that is brilliant about the world. Every small miracle to make mum realise life is worth living. 1. Ice cream. 2. Water fights. 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV. 4. The colour yellow. 5. Things with stripes 6. Rollercoasters. 7. People falling over.

Prompted by a mother’s attempted suicide, what starts as a small gesture turns into thousands of entries that follow the boy throughout a life spent trying to define and capture happiness.

That list’s mission to prove life is beautiful is the basis of Every Brilliant Thing, a one-man play based on Paines Plough playwright Duncan Macmillan’s short story Sleeve Notes, adapted for the stage with input from actor Jonny Donahoe.

Settled after two years of improvisation and Donahoe performances at the Edinburgh Fringe, in London and at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre, Macmillan’s text now forms the debut production by new York company Shared Space Theatre, directed by Maggie Smales.

Theatre@41 chair Alan Park will be on home turf, performing the solo show only weeks after stepping in to play the lead in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing at York Theatre Royal Studio.

Alan Park and Victoria Delaney in a scene from York Settlement Community Players’ April production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing

“Everyone I have spoken to about doing it has said ‘oh, we need that show now more than ever’,” says Alan. “A friend [Theatre@41 supporter Cate Birch] suggested we try and book the show to tour into York but when I read it, and found there were no other productions around, I decided to apply to do it myself.”

Much to Alan’s delight, Macmillan gave his approval to Shared Space staging a production in York. “It really is one of the most uplifting plays I’ve ever read. It’s a brilliant thing,” says Alan. “The world does feel a bit of a challenge right now, not just because of the Covid years but for longer than that.

“What I like about it is how it responds to our tendency not to focus on brilliant things but on things that go wrong, so we then miss out on appreciating the obvious things, like ice cream, which is the first thing on the boy’s list that becomes a list of 1,000,000.

“On the list at number 123,321 is palindromes, which a nice joke on the meaning of ‘palindrome’, while number 2,001 is movies that are better than the book such as 2001: A Space Odyssey], but basically it’s saying the best things in life are just ordinary.”

Every Brilliant Thing will be staged in the round, lending an intimate atmosphere to Theatre@41, where the audience will play a crucial role in compiling the list of brilliant things.

“The result is an unforgettable communal experience that reminds us of the power found in connecting with the people around us,” says Alan, whose production run coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week (May 15 to 21).

“I’m loath to call it a play about mental depression as it’s about brilliant things,” says Alan Park

“I’m loath to call it a play about mental depression as it’s about brilliant things. The great premise within it is that the audience can play their part, though you can be as involved or uninvolved as you want to be.”

Director Maggie Smales has emphasised the need for Alan to be fleet of foot in each performance. “I have to react to whatever happens. Equally, the audience has the chance to play characters within the story, such as a teacher and the boy’s father, and you have to be prepared for the possibility of everybody’s reaction being different.

“That’s why it’s difficult to rehearse as you will have to come out with all these possible responses.”

Macmillan has decreed that the audience should be seated as democratically as possible. “No-one will be sitting upstairs as that wouldn’t be democratic,” says Alan. “There’ll be two rows of seating in the round, with a very blurred line between the performer and audience and no theatrical lighting, no props and no set.

“It’s very much a storytelling show and that’s partly what drew me to it, that emphasis. I don’t mind shows with sets, but they can be distancing, whereas what you want to do with a show like this is engage people directly in a story for an hour with naturalistic storytelling.”

Shared Space Theatre in Every Brilliant Thing, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk

List entries as a teenager in Every Brilliant Thing include:

Number 324: Nina Simone’s voice.

761. Deciding you are not too old to climb trees.

995. Bubble wrap.

Scrum down for Luke Adamson’s fun and games with Twelfth Night at Selby RUFC

A variation on Malvolio’s cross-gartered stocking theme: Yellow and black rugby socks for Luke Adamson’s version of Twelfth Night on the Selby RUFC pitch

“I’M just getting in touch to announce that we’re doing some Shakespeare on a rugby pitch in Selby in August. Crazy? Perhaps. But it’s going to be fun!”, promises the email from Luke Adamson.

The Selby actor, London pub theatre boss and son of former England squad fly half Ray Adamson will be returning to the scene of his “greatest triumphs” – two times winner of Selby Rugby Club’s Stars in Their Eyes competition, no less – to present Twelfth Night on August 20 and 21.

Adapted and directed by Adamson, his raucous, musical version of “Shakespeare’s funniest play” will be staged on Selby RUFC turf by JLA Productions with Adamson as the foppish comic foil Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a cast rich with Yorkshire acting talent.

Twelfth Night is the Shakespeare one where identical twins Sebastian and Viola are separated at sea after their ship sinks. When Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria, she must disguise herself as a man in order to gain employment with the local Duke, Orsino.

“Filled with slapstick comedy, famous songs and more than a few modern references, our Twelfth Night promises to be a fast, funny, family-friendly show for all ages,” says Luke Adamson, Selby actor-director and former Selby RUFC fifth team scrum half

In a nutshell, “Orsino is in love with Olivia; Olivia is in love with Viola (who she thinks is a man called Cesario); Malvolio thinks Olivia is in love with him; Viola is in love with Orsino (who also thinks she is a man called Cesario),” runs the plot.

“Antonia is in love with Sebastian; Sir Andrew is trying to woo Olivia; Feste is stirring the pot and Sir Toby Belch and Maria are getting drunk and making mischief.”

Ah, yes, that one! “Out go pantaloons, cross garters and big fluffy collars,” says Luke. “In come rugby socks, cricket jumpers and questionable facial hair. Filled with slapstick comedy, famous songs and more than a few modern references, it promises to be a fast, funny, family-friendly show for all ages.”

Luke, artistic director of JLA Productions and The Bridge House Theatre, in London SE20, is no stranger to the Selby RUFC pitches. He once played scrum half alongside his fly-half father Ray, who toured Australia and Fiji as part of England’s squad in 1988.

Perfect pitch! Luke Adamson and fellow Slung Low cast members Sally Ann Staunton, Nadia Imam and Tyron Maynard for Rugby Songs, performed at Selby RUFC in July 2017

“It was for Selby  fifth team” recalls Luke, who later returned to the ground on a Sunday afternoon in July 2017 as part of the squad for Leeds company Slung Low’s free Selby Arts Festival performance of Lisa Holdsworth’s Rugby Songs: the show with headsets for the crowd, first staged at assorted Yorkshire grounds during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Luke knew Slung Low director Alan Lane from doing Blood + Chocolate with him in York in 2013 and festival director David Edmunds from when his Dep Arts organisation helped him to  tour One Last Waltz, a play about Alzheimer’s.

“The prospect of doing a show with rugby songs at rugby club grounds was something I wanted to get involved with, so I contacted Alan,” he says.

“I’d played Rugby Union since junior days, as a scrum half, starting at seven years old, and my dad went on tour with England in 1988, when he was playing for fly half and full back for Wakefield, and he was also in the squad for the Five Nations, so it was interesting when the script came through, with stories such as when England fans first sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, at Twickenham that year.”

Ray Adamson, Wakefield and Selby fly half, 1988 England squad member and actor Luke’s father, in his playing days

Chris Oti, England’s black winger, had scored a second-half hattrick of tries that March afternoon in a 35-3 victory, prompting the Twickenham throng to burst into their tribute song. “‘I was there’, my dad said. ‘What, you were in the crowd?’ I asked him. ‘No, I was on the England bench’!”

Ray reached the rugby heights, first as a player then as a referee, and Luke showed promise too. “I played in the North Yorkshire squad for one season in my age group, but by then I was starting to go to youth theatre in York and I knew that was the route I wanted to go down, but I did play a season with the Selby fifths with my dad in 2006-2007,” he recalls.

The July 2017 sold-out performance took place on Selby RUFC’s first-team pitch with the crowd on the touchlines, hearing every note and story behind each national song, from New Zealand’s Haka to South Africa’s Shosholoza, through hi-tech headphone technology, the trademark of Slung Low’s outdoor productions.

Luke, who appeared in the 2015 production too, performed with Nadia Imam, Tyron Maynard and Sally Ann Staunton, each kitted in myriad national rugby shirts.

The post for JLA Productions’ Twelfth Night at Selby RUFC

“Doing it in the middle of summer, it was so hot as we each had to have six jerseys on at one point – and we had to make sure we’d all got them on in the right order,” he says Luke.

The Kiwis’ Haka is traditionally the most fearsome sight and sound in world rugby, but Luke fondly remembers that not being the case on that Sunday afternoon. “I’m not sure it’s quite as intimidating when you have just four actors,” he concedes. “But the message was very profound and philosophical about life and death.”

Now he will return to Selby RUFC, for all the fun and games of Twelfth Night, later this summer.

JLA Productions in Twelfth Night, Selby Rugby Union Football Club, August 20, 7.30pm; August 21, 2.30pm, 7.30pm. Tickets are on sale at jlaproductions.co.uk with discounts available for family bookings.

Slung Low turn another page with dystopian short film The Good Book streaming online from tomorrow

Riana Duce as Avalon and Angus Imrie as Geraint in a scene from The Good Book, streaming online from tomorrow

PIONEERING Leeds theatre company Slung Low will premiere their new short film The Good Book from 12 noon tomorrow, streaming online for free.

Set in a future Leeds, James Phillips’s story depicts a society divided between loyalists of the powerful Queen Bear and radical followers of Galahad.

Avalon, played by Riana Duce, is a young woman desperate not to take sides, but as civil war begins, she must undertake a dangerous mission to rescue a precious relic from destruction.

Riana, from Bradford, is joined in the cast of invited actors by Angus Imrie, from Fleabag, Emma and The Archers, Katie Eldred and more than 100 members of the Holbeck community.

Directed by Sheffield filmmaker Brett Chapman, filming took place in late-January at Slung Low’s base, The Holbeck Social Club and at Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds Central Library and Leeds Town Hall.

Slung Low cast members Riana Duce and Angus Imrie in a scene from The Good Book in Holbeck Cemetery

The Good Book forms the first production for the newly formed Leeds People’s Theatre, created by producers Slung Low with support of Leeds 2023, the city’s upcoming international cultural festival, Leeds City Council and the Arts Council.

The film continues writer James Phillips’s future dystopia, a series that began with The White Whale at Leeds Dock in 2013, followed by Camelot, a Slung Low and Sheffield Theatres outdoor co-production in 2015.

Next came Flood, the epic centrepiece of Hull, UK City of Culture 2017’s performance programme that also featured on the BBC.

Project number four represents a departure for Slung Low: the film The Good Book, at once self-contained but also drawing on the world of Camelot.

“I think the plan was to launch it in Leeds and do a little festival run, but after the Coronavirus lockdown it seemed better and more useful to put it out there now online,” says James.

Katie Eldred , centre, as Vivian in The Good Book

“We were lucky that we got the filming done in the last two and a half weeks of January, and the penultimate day was ‘Brexit Day’. Not that long ago, but that now seems a world of somewhat different concerns.”

The Good Book finds Phillips working once more with Slung Low artistic director and executive producer Alan Lane. “The work Alan and I do together is different to the other work Slung Low does,” says James.

“For pieces like Flood, a full-blown epic for Hull’s City of Culture year, it’s a ‘future present’ that we create that allows us to play with big political ideas and look at things in a slightly different way.

“Camelot was done with a massive cast of 127 on Sheffield’s streets in 2015, and again it was a prescient piece where I became obsessed with the thought of a dangerous nostalgia, that need to look back to look forward, which has caused so many problems.

“That play was about a young girl who saw visions of the future of Arthurian Britain, and then ten years later, people come along who have taken those visions seriously but are utterly more dangerous. This re-birth of ‘purity’ becomes so destructive that a civil war starts.”

Angus Imrie as Geraint in Leeds Central Library in The Good Book

James continues: “This was just before Trump’s presidency, Brexit and the Corbyn revolution, so something was in the air. Like ISIS being a nostalgic organisation looking back to something that never existed…and I wondered about Christian fundamentalism too.”

The Good Book is set ten years into that new world, now in Holbeck, as a counter-revolution starts in Leeds, whereas Camelot was set and made in Sheffield.

The switch of location was a “very logical step”, says James: “When I wanted to make this film, it was good to tie it in with the idea that Leeds was the last place that Sheffield would want a counter-revolution to start, and whereas Camelot was about heroes, this story is about a small revolution.”

In The Good Book, an old man caught between two opposing factions gives a young girl a piece of paper with a reference number for a book at Leeds Library. “She has to decide whether to risk herself to save the book, and she wonders what meaning the book might have,” says James.

Is “The Good Book” the Bible? “No. It’s something more than anything to do with what’s going on in the world now,” says James.

Riana Duce as Avalon in The Good Book

A short film may suggest a more intimate work than Camelot, but “it is and it isn’t more intimate”, the writer says. “I made the decision to push the envelope, so it’s not a typical short film. It has a big cast of 100, so technically it’s too long for a ‘short film’.

“At the end, there’s a big riot involving 90 people, and we had lots of recruits wanting to do that scene!”

How does James expect viewers to react to The Good Book? “Hopefully they will be surprised. It’s different. I’ve done screen things before, like the Flood project having a short film and a piece for the BBC, but The Good Book was always, deliberately, conceived to be a short film,” he says.

“I think we’re on to a good thing with this film, so it would be great to do more of them.”

Slung Low’s The Good Book will be available to stream online for free from 12 noon tomorrow (May 1) at www.slunglow.org/TGB

Slung Low’s film poster for The Good Book

Did you know?

LEEDS People’s Theatre has been created by Slung Low as a dedicated division for large-scale professional arts projects with communities in Leeds at the heart of them.

This involves the community working in tandem with professional artists and creative teams, offering an opportunity to learn, gain more experience or simply be part of a community. 

The Good Book will be the first of several projects Slung Low are planning for Leeds People’s Theatre. Watch this space.