- Make a list of reasons why you should see Every Brilliant Thing.
- Thank Duncan Macmillan for writing Sleeve Notes, his book of lists.
- Thank actor Jonny Donahue for helping Macmillan to turn it into a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe and in London and New York.
- Put yourself in the shoes of the seven-year-old schoolboy who writes a list of every brilliant thing, every small miracle, to make his suicidal mum realise life is worth living.
- Ice cream.
- Water fights.
- Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.
- The colour yellow.
- Things with stripes.
- People falling over.
- Often ordinary things, but brilliant in their own way.
- Mum keeps trying to take her life, and so he keeps adding to the list.
- You should do the same. Make a list, I mean.
- Especially if you are feeling listless.
- Start now.
- Well, not until you have read this review.
- Thank Theatre@41 supporter Cate Birch for recommending Every Brilliant Thing to chair Alan Park.
- Thank Alan for reading it.
- Thank Alan, professional actor to boot, for deciding he should perform it himself.
- Thank Duncan Macmillan for saying yes to York’s new company Shared Space Theatre making it their debut production.
- Thank Alan for asking Maggie Smales – responsible for York Shakespeare Project’s best ever production, the all-female Henry V – to direct him.
- Thank brainbox Alan for having the mental powers to remember the script for his lead role in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and Every Brilliant Thing in quick succession.
- Thank his Maths teacher of bygone years for Alan being good with numbers. So many numbers, one for every brilliant thing on a list now running to 1,000,000.
- Alan doesn’t have to remember all that list but he does have to remember what goes with each number that features in the show.
- And remember a running order that is not as easy as 123 to remember.
- Because it is not in numerical order.
- And sometimes a number is repeated.
- And repeated.
- Much later.
- It all adds up to a breathtaking and sometimes breathless display of skills in breaking down theatre’s fourth wall.
- Result: The audience immediately feels part of the hour-long show.
- Whether reading out a brilliant thing from the list on a number cue.
- Or having fun when gently enticed by Alan into playing a role.
- Such as?
- A teacher with a sock puppet of a dog, requiring Alan’s recruit to remove a shoe and sock to play the part.
- Or the boy’s father, but then switching with Alan for him to play the father and you, the son, en route to hospital, asking “Why” in response to everything he says.
- Because that’s what children do.
- Don’t ask.
- Later play the father again, this time in a wedding breakfast speech…revealing a Texan accent.
- Prompting Alan’s character – he has no name – to comment on suddenly discovering unexpected American roots.
- Describe a woman with an orange top and blonde hair from Macmillan’s story…and promptly ask a woman in the front row in orange, with blonde hair, to play that character.
- Make eye contact with another female member of the audience.
- She happens to be an actress, serendipitously. A rather good one.
- Flo Poskitt.
- One half of Fladam.
- York’s musical comedy double act with Adam Sowter.
- Catch them in Green Fingers at next week’s TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal.
- May 27, 3pm.
- Box office: 01904 623568.
- Or yortheatreroyal.co.uk.
- She willingly plays a woman called Sam with whom Alan’s character bonds over a love of books.
- They fall in love.
- They marry…after Flo’s Sam goes down on one unsteady knee to propose to him in an equally unsteady voice.
- Prompting a comment from Alan.
- He’s good at that.
- The impromptu stuff.
- Off the cuff.
- On the mark.
- It all helps that we are seated in two rows in the round, with no-one allowed upstairs under Macmillan’s strict rules of democracy to create a shared experience.
- There are a few empty chairs.
- But that’s good.
- Because Alan is only too happy to occupy any empty chair, next to whoever, and spring from chair to chair.
- Because, as George Osborne once said: “We are all in this together.”
- Although not in Chancellor George’s case, we weren’t.
- But definitely in Every Brilliant Thing.
- The list keeps growing.
- Lots of music.
- The way Ray Charles sings “You” in Drown In My Own Tears.
- But not jazz.
- Instrumental jazz, to be precise.
- Music that “sounds like it’s falling down the stairs”.
- Music to signify you should stay out of dad’s way at that moment.
- The marriage ends. Wham bam, exit Sam.
- The list stops.
- Well past 800,000.
- Only to start again years later.
- Like suddenly revisiting an old diary and feeling inspired to begin Dear Diarying all over again.
- Alan’s character has a serious point to make.
- Suicide. Don’t do it. There has to be something to live for, he says. Hence the list. Hence this show.
- And if the play has troubled you, Alan will be on hand afterwards to talk about its themes.
- This week’s production happens to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week.
- More details at mentalhealth.org.uk.
- Every Brilliant Thing does address depression, suicide, death (beginning with the family pet), but it is uplifting, joyous, funny too.
- A difficult balancing act.
- But negotiated skilfully by Macmillan and Donahue, and now Park and Smales. Never glib. Often profound. Comforting. Thought provoking.
- Life changing?
- You decide.
- There are still three opportunities to see Every Brilliant Thing.
- Tonight at 7.30pm.
- Tomorrow at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.
- At the venue that won Best Entertainment Venue at Thursday night’s YorkMix Choice Awards 2023.
- Congratulations, Alan and all the team at Theatre@41.
- Another reason to…
- Add Every Brilliant Thing to your list of what to do this weekend. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
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.
LOOKING to make a list of every brilliant thing you could do? Here are Charles Hutchinson’s suggestions for the week ahead.
Play of the week: Northern Broadsides in Quality Street, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees
NORTHERN Broadsides, from Halifax, the home of Quality Street chocs, heads to the chocolate city of York with this delicious J M Barrie farce, whose lead characters featured on the first tin to take the Regency rom-com’s title in 1936.
Artistic director Laurie Sansom stirs a good helping of Yorkshire wit from retired workers at the Halifax factory into Barrie’s story of determined heroine Phoebe Throssel, who runs a school for unruly children, and Captain Valentine, who needs teaching a lesson in love. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Film event of the week: Little Richard: I Am Everything, City Screen Picturehouse, York, Tuesday, 8pm
DIRECTOR Lisa Cortés’s documentary tells the story of “the black queer origins of rock’n’roll, exploding the whitewashed canon of American pop music to reveal the innovator – the originator – Richard Penniman”.
Delving into Little Richard’s complicated inner world, with its switchbacks and contradictions and service to both God and music, Cortés conducts interviews with family, musicians and scholars to reveals how he created an art form for ultimate self-expression, and yet what he gave to the world he was never able to give to himself. Box office: picturehouses.com.
List of the week: Shared Space presents Every Brilliant Thing, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee
THEATRE@41 chair Alan Park swaps off-stage duties for on when appearing in Every Brilliant Thing, an hour-long show built around a list that spans a lifetime spent trying to prove life is beautiful, written by Duncan Macmillan with input from Jonny Donahoe.
Based on both true and untrue stories, this play about depression and the lengths we go to for those we love is staged by new York theatre company Shared Space, directed by Maggie Smales. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Country gig of the week: Morgan Wade, Crossing State Lines (And Oceans!) Acoustic Tour, York Barbican, Thursday, 8pm
MORGAN Wade, the 28-year-old country singer from Floyd, Virginia, plays York on the back of her “once-in-a-decade debut”, 2021’s Reckless, first released through Thirty Tigers and later picked up by Sony Music Nashville.
Wade wrote or co-wrote a song cycle that addressed the reality facing teens and 20-somethings, embracing raw desire, the reality of getting high and getting sober and the realm of crawling through the wreckage, with tough vulnerability and hurt in her voice. Kat Hasty supports. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk (limited availability).
Adventure of the week: Baron Productions in Treasure Island, St Mary’s Church, Bishophill Junior, York, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm
YORK company Baron Productions stages Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 coming-of-age adventure story of buccaneers and buried gold, wherein 12-year-old Jim Hawkins finds a treasure map that belonged to the pirate Captain Flint. On board the Hispaniola, he and his friends Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey duly set off to a faraway island.
Daniel Wilmot’s thoroughly dashing cast includes Lee Gemmell’s Long John Silver, Paul Toy’s Doctor Livesey, Ellie Guffick’s Dick Johnson, Jamie Stapleton’s Cap’n Billy Bones, Molly Barton-Howe’s Morgan and Jack McAdam’s Dirk. Box office: ticketsource.co.uk/baron-productions.
Studio show of the week: Octopus Dream in I Love You, Mum – I Promise I Won’t Die, York Theatre Royal Studio, Friday, 7.45pm, and Saturday, 4pm and 7.45pm
MARK Wheeller’s fast-moving, emotionally charged play tells the true story of the tragic death of Dan, a cool, creative and talented South London schoolboy, who took a lethal dose of Ecstasy at an illegal rave.
At 16, he had plans, plenty of them, but losing his life was not one of them. Directed by Elliot Montgomery, Cobie Scott-Ward, Amy Zoldan, Alex Colley and Sean Radford use Dan’s own words to describe the choices he made and the impact on his family and friends in a journey from tragedy to redemption. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Classical concert of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra, Bernstein, Korngold & Rachmaninoff, York Barbican, May 20, 7.30pm
VIOLINIST Nicholas Wright heads back to York from his Vancouver home to play Hollywood film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D with the York Guildhall Orchestra.
Conducted by Simon Wright, the orchestra’s final concert of the 2022-2023 season also features Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 2, written nine years after his first. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Long-awaited return of the week: Sarabeth Tucek, Selby Town Hall, May 20, 8pm
AMERICAN singer-songwriter Sarabeth Tucek has re-emerged from a decade in hibernation – or more precisely “concentrating on other creative endeavours” – with a May 19 double album, Joan Of All, and a new moniker, SBT, her long-time nickname.
On her first British itinerary since 2011, she will be joined by her band for 18 dates. Support slots go to Kiran Leonard and dbh. Box office: 01757 708449 or selbytownhall.co.uk.
In Focus: Ben Fogle: Wild, York Barbican, May 19, 7pm and Harrogate Royal Hall, May 21, 7.30pm
BROADCASTER and adventurer Ben Fogle’s latest walk on the wild side is a 22-date tour full of hair-raising and uplifting stories from a life of amazing encounters.
Taking in Yorkshire trips to York and Harrogate next week, the Animal Park, Lost Worlds and New Lives In The Wild presenter will be sharing stories of hope, possibility and positivity and offering tips on “finding your ocean of possibility”.
Lessons learned from a career that has taken the 49-year-old Londoner to some of the most extreme locations in the world, whether filming for documentaries or tackling some of mankind’s greatest physical challenges.
A former Reservist in the Royal Navy, Ben embarked on the BBC’s ground-breaking Castaway series in 2000, when 36 adventurous souls ditched the rat race for a year-long social experiment, marooned on the remote Scottish island of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides.
“I think it’s all luck, but you make a bit of that yourself,” he says, reflecting on the past 23 years. “I have always loved travel, nature, the outdoors – that’s why I did Castaway. But it was a much more intense experience than anything I could have had under normal circumstances.
“I get asked about Castaway a lot and will be talking about it on the tour, as it’s a big part of me and relative to so much of what I do and have done.”
“Y2K” was “a definitive time”, Ben says. “It was pre-mobile phones, social media didn’t exist, so many things were very, very different. Now things have changed so profoundly, it would be difficult to go back to that innocence and simplicity.
“A [television] channel might try it again one day but no one has replicated it so far. Partly due to the fact nothing like it existed at that time, and people went for very pure and innocent reasons. The landscape has changed, people go on TV now for fame and fortune and that naturally changes the dynamic.
“Heading off to spend a year on an island with a load of strangers gave me a real grounding and a foundation of what it takes to make a simple, off-grid life.”
Those foundations allowed Ben to build his career and stood him in perfect stead for his many varied TV projects. Perhaps none more so than the 12 years of global travel for New Lives In The Wild, wherein he meets people living extreme, off-grid lives in a world now dominated by ease of communication and all too often dictated by being on-grid.
“Castaway definitely gave me the qualifications to be able to do a series like New Lives – to spend time with people living their whole life the way I did for 12 months,” he says. “I have a better understanding of the trials and tribulations, the highs and lows, the benefits and sacrifices they make.
“The more people I have spent time with over 12 years of making that show, the more I understand what goes into making a sustainable, off-grid life like that. A lot of these people are quite reserved, not anti-social necessarily, but they perhaps don’t enjoy being round other people. But as I have experienced it, they can open up with me – there’s almost a mutual respect between us.”
Ben’s experience of meeting those who live in some of the world’s most diverse environments forms the basis of his Wild tour as he takes audiences on a journey to relive inspiring and uplifting tales he has encountered on his travels to the wilderness of northern Sweden, the jungles of Honduras, the hostility of Chernobyl and the mountains of Nepal.
Having previously filmed in Chernobyl, when he met those who returned to live there as it continues to recover from the 1986 nuclear disaster, Ben made a private visit in September after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Early in the conflict, Russian armed forces seized the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – and soldiers were later reported to have radiation poisoning following their operations in the highly contaminated area.
More than a year after the invasion, he does not foresee the conflict ending soon. “I fear this is in for the long run, decades and decades of unrest in that part of the world,” he says. “I can’t see a quick resolution unfortunately.
“It’s another thing the tour will look at: the effects that war and disaster can have on places, not just the landscape but the people too. It seems harsh to say, but war is part of what happens in a world where seven billion people live. It’s another way that man destroys the environment around us, but can also provide examples of how a place can bounce back.”
Ben’s love of the great outdoors reaches back to his own childhood, where his time was divided between rural Dorset and central London, complemented by extended school holiday trips to the Canadian wilderness to visit his paternal grandparents.
Could he ever step fully out of modern life and would he take his family, wife Marina and children Ludo and Iona, along for the adventure?
“I’m incredibly lucky that I get to straddle two worlds, being in the urban world with all it offers, then going off to the wilderness – and that gives me perspective, which is so important in life,” he says.
“There’s definitely something about that kind of life that appeals to me, but not right now. Ludo and Iona are 14 and 12 this year and are very much involved in urban living.
“They are very well travelled. They have spent time in the jungle, in remote islands, wood cabins, the Norwegian wilderness. But then they go to school and are very much engaged with ‘normal’ society, and love researching on computers, having pizza or going to the cinema.”
Ben’s family lives outside London now. “That helps,” he says. “We ride horses, go wild swimming, long dog walks. But it’s balance; I want them to be street savvy as well as being able in bush craft skills. I want my children to be able to wire a plug and start a fire, to make a bed and to put up a tent. They’re all skills for life and don’t need to be exclusive.
“It’s one of the biggest lessons I think I’ve learnt from meeting hundreds of people all over the world – that too many people follow a prescription for life and don’t think about how you can change that.
“Yes, on one hand I live a prescriptive life with two children, a couple of dogs, paying taxes, being very much part of society. But on the other hand, I have a pretty alternative life, spending the majority of the year away from home because of what I do for a living.
“People ask why I’m not living in a cabin in the woods, but there are sacrifices to make for that life – and I love those great cultural events, arts, cinema, books, so what I have realised is that the search for a perfect balance is what is more important.
“My life is not something everyone could have, not everyone could do it. But I hope that after joining me on the Wild tour, people will consider what kind of things they can do in their own life, the small changes to make to find that balance.”
Ben Fogle: the back story
FORMER Royal Navy Reservist Ben appeared on the BBC series Castaway in 2000, marooned on an island in the Outer Hebrides for a year.
He has since presented Animal Park, Countryfile, Wild In Africa, Wild On The West Coast, Crufts, One Man And His Dog, Country Tracks Extreme Dreams, A Year Of Adventures, Storm City, Harbour Lives, Countrywise, Trawlermen’s Lives and New Lives In The Wild.
Hehas made documentaries on Prince William in Africa, disease in Ethiopia, Captain Scott in Antarctica and crocodiles in Botswana.
He has travelled extensively in South and Central America and has toured the world for various broadcasting assignments to more than 200 places including Tristan Da Cunha, Pitcairn, St Helena, East Timor, Nepal, Namibia, Kenya, the Arctic Circle, Zambia, Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Libya, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Tahiti, Maldives, Tanzania and Morocco.
He has worked as a special correspondent for NBC News and has published more than 15 books, including The Teatime Islands, Offshore, The Crossing, Race To The Pole, The Accidental Adventurer, The Accidental Naturalist, Labrador, Land Rover and English.
He has run the Marathon Des Sables, swum from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and is a keen sailor, marathon runner, boxer and cyclist.
Ben married Marina in 2006 after meeting her in the park while walking their dogs, Inca and Maggi. They have two children, Ludo and Iona.
For Wild tickets: York, yorkbarbican.co.uk; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
REVIEW: Hull Truck Theatre/Theatre By The Lake, Hull Truck Theatre, until May 20 ***
AROUND The World In 80 Days is a race against time, a race that involves cramming in so much that ironically Laura Eason’s play runs the risk of feeling like it is taking too long.
Such a challenge faces both American writer Eason and director Hal Chambers, although designer Louie Whitemore definitely has the right idea in utilising a revolving stage to build the sensation of constant movement.
Whitemore’s basic set is bare: a set of the imagination on which anything can happen, anything can arrive: an elephant, a sledge, a train, a trading vessel, even a circus to start the second half.
Naomi Oppenheim’s puppetry, Jess Williams’s movement direction and Claire Llewellyn’s fight direction all add to the visual spectacle in a production rooted in physical theatre and dextrous feats as much as symbols of English Victoriana and colonialism.
French novelist Jules Verne’s story finds eccentric Victorian English gent Phileas Fogg (Stefan Adegbola) placing a wager with his stuffy Reform Club cronies that he can traverse the globe in 80 days. His entire fortune is at risk.
Adegbola’s immaculate, precise, tea-drinking, unflappable but not-always scrupulous Fogg takes on his challenge with the help, sometimes hindrance, of French valet Passepartout ( a clowning, Chaplinesque little tramp of a comic turn from Miriam O’Brien).
On his trail and on his tail is Dyfrig Morris’s Inspector Fix, who has convinced himself Fogg is a thief and will go to the ends of the world to prove it. He plays the buffooning fall guy in comic tradition.
As Fogg races from Italy to India, skips ship in Hong Kong and heads into dustbowl America, into the story are woven Tricia Adele-Turner’s Captain Speedy, Purvi Parmar’s Captain Blossom, Nicholas Prasad’s Mr Naidu and Niall Ransome’s scene-stealing, all-American Colonel Stamp Proctor when Chambers’ production hits its stride in the more inventive, more thrilling second half.
The danger rises and suddenly romance is in the air. Saba Shiraz’s Mrs Aouda, joining the protective Fogg from India onwards, has the measure of the Englishman, challenging him in a discussion on Britain’s colonial acquisitions, not least because Adegbola’s Fogg carries himself with an air of arrogant assumption of superiority.
Amid the chaotic humour, the playful music, the crazy commotions reminiscent of a Mischief caper, and the celebration of Britain’s age of invention, that more serious note gives Eason’s script a topical resonance.
Box office: 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk.