Enjoying a new production of a show just as much as you did the original is a Brilliant Thing, writes David Zampatti.
Every Brilliant Thing, Black Swan State Theatre Company Theatre Company · State Theatre Centre of WA, 26 August 2021
The original production of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, performed by its co-writer, the British actor and comedian Jonny Donahoe, was a well-deserved highlight of the 2016 Perth Festival.
Any reservation I had about seeing it remounted after only five years – this time by Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA, directed by Adam Mitchell and performed by Luke Hewitt – was quickly dispelled, though in truth I’d had very few, such is the quality of the script and so great is my regard for Hewitt, that excellent character actor.
Hewitt’s wonderful warmth and great skill make what is in many ways a desperately sad story bearable and, ultimately, a fine, fertile entertainment. He’s a different actor from Donahoe: a little less dark, a little more overt, but his read of the script and management of his performance are every bit as satisfying.
He shares with his predecessor a kind of puppy-dog winsomeness that engages the character with the audience. It’s an essential quality, most in evidence in an exquisite scene in which he first lays eyes on his future wife, Sam, in a university library. The story of their courtship and marriage is sweet, funny and genuine.
It’s also remarkable, because the person “playing” Sam is an audience member. She’s at the show with an accommodating bloke who doesn’t complain when Hewitt gets him to sit somewhere else while he does his wooing.
She’s one of several punters Hewitt plucks from the audience to play the family vet, the school counsellor, and his dad (this night it was well-known actor Greg McNeill, who swore after the show he wasn’t a plant).
Another plays the university lecturer who introduces him to Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther, a book whose theme and impact are central to the story.
No one plays his mum, but she looms over the play from its first moment, when his dad picks him up from school to take him to the hospital where she is recovering from an attempted suicide.
He is too young then to do anything but ask why, but as he grows he embarks on a personal mission to keep his mum from the darkness.
He starts a list, a list of brilliant things. Reasons, he reasons, to go on living. It’s a desperate idea, and while time and time again he finds out the power of the illness that afflicts his mother, still he goes on.
The brilliant things on the list go into the hundreds, the thousands. The hundreds of thousands. Even when its original purpose fails, even when his own life turns dark, it remains and grows, an affirmation of life and living.
There’s some splendid music from Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Curtis Mayfield and Hewitt himself – much credit must also go to composer and sound designer Melanie Robinson for her moody, unobtrusive score – but the genius of the show is Hewitt’s terrific interaction with the audience.
This isn’t the sort of audience participation that sends people scurrying to the safety of the back rows. It’s genuine, gentle and user-friendly, and it creates a very rare sense of shared purpose between performer and audience.
The play is presented in the round, and it’s an inspired decision by Mitchell, designer Fiona Bruce and lighting designer Kristie Smith that allows us the great pleasure of watching our fellow audience members, and sharing a remarkable sense of bonhomie as, together, we go along this sad and lovely journey.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man who, at a fleeting glance, looked remarkably like Peter Dutton, except for the wide smile on his face. That strange departure from reality alone was worth the price of admission.
Every Brilliant Thing runs until 18 September 2021 in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA. The show will also tour regional WA in November.