Manitoba·Review

From ice cream to Christopher Walken, Every Brilliant Thing celebrates what makes life worth living

The one-man play Every Brilliant Thing is unabashedly life-affirming, skilfully weaving light and dark, humour and tragedy, and a fair bit of painless (maybe even fun) audience participation in an engaging, reflective and satisfying 75 minutes.

Solo show at Royal MTC is an engaging, reflective and life-affirming look at joy, sadness, life and death

Michael Torontow performs Duncan Macmillan's one-man play Every Brilliant Thing. The show features some painless — maybe even fun — involvement from the audience to tell the story of a man trying to find the beauty in life. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

Ice cream. Coffee. Water fights. Christopher Walken's voice.

These are among a million or so brilliant things that make life worth living, according to British playwright Duncan Macmillan's one-man show Every Brilliant Thing (written with Jonny Donahoe, the British comedian who originally performed it).

Macmillan's script — performed by Michael Torontow in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's co-production with Talk Is Free Theatre of Barrie, Ont. — is unabashedly life-affirming, but also delves into dark territory.

It skilfully weaves light and dark, humour and tragedy, and a fair bit of painless (maybe even fun) audience participation in an engaging, reflective and satisfying 75 minutes.

Torontow plays our unnamed narrator, who we meet as a seven-year-old boy. His father picks him up from school one day, telling him only that his mother has "done something stupid."

As we soon learn, she suffers from depression and has tried to kill herself.

How does a seven-year-old respond to such a seemingly senseless act? For our narrator, it's a touching, if childishly naive, attempt to cheer his mother by making a list of every brilliant thing worth living for (No. 1 — ice cream).

Macmillan's script is refreshingly matter-of-fact. It neither wallows in, nor ignores, the sadness of the character's life, and also skilfully blends in humour. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

It doesn't magically change his mother's life or cure her depression — this isn't that kind of play. But as the narrator ages, he continually returns to, and expands on, his list. As he matures, so does the list.

This could all easily become mawkish, but Macmillan is too good a writer for that, and Torontow — in a production delicately directed by recently retired RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper — is too fine an actor to let it tip over into cheap sentimentality.

Macmillan's script doesn't wallow in the sadness of a child living with a mother living with a serious mental illness, nor does it ignore that. It's refreshingly matter-of-fact.

It also has a delightful sense of humour, but doesn't use laughter to gloss over its more serious points. Our narrator's story — like anyone's — has its share of tragedy and laughter, and Macmillan presents it all for our consideration and reflection.

Though it's not his story, Torontow makes it feel as though it is. His delivery is convincing and relatable — a key consideration in a play where the audience is very much part of the performance.

Some audience members get off relatively easy — they're asked to, at various points, read one of the items from the list off a card.

Torontow's welcoming and genuine performance helps make the participatory nature of the show engaging. (Dylan Hewlett/RMTC)

A few others are asked to join Torontow onstage as other characters. At his opening night show, Torontow was lucky enough — or, more likely, smart enough — to select some pretty game audience members. It should be said that the success of any performance of Every Brilliant Thing may vary depending on the audience participation.

But Torontow's welcoming delivery also makes it easy to want to join him onstage. (He also handled an unfortunate opening night issue — a medical emergency involving an audience member that required the show to be halted briefly — with tact and skill.)

The participatory nature of the show sometimes interrupts its flow slightly, but that's a quibble. More importantly, it underlines one of Macmillan's themes — life is sometimes hard. Not everything is brilliant, but there are enough things that are to make it worth carrying on — with help from each other.

My bar for "brilliant" theatre is high, and I don't think this one quite clears it. 

But no list of things that make life worthwhile would be complete without "theatre that makes you think — and feel good."

Every Brilliant Thing runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Feb. 8.

Michael Torontow performs Duncan Macmillan's one-man play Every Brilliant Thing at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse in January 2020. 0:14

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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