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.
“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. 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.