Review: Every Brilliant Thing (Dundee Rep)
Updated: Jun 10
How do we talk about depression? It’s a topic that has come up more and more in the media in recent years: in film, in television, and in particular social media, with scrolls of videos and pictures trying to remind people to be happy and that they are loved, written by an anonymous person in an unknown place. Now we have a one-man comedy-drama to remind you, in person and in great detail, of all the brilliant things in life, whilst simultaneously telling the often very sombre story of our nameless narrator, played by James Rowland. In spite of its massive success over the last few years, touring the world before arriving at Dundee Rep, there is always a concern; what happens when a play about depression makes you laugh? And what happens if it doesn’t?
Duncan McMillan’s much talked about play is performed in the round, with a small audience and fairly intimate proximity to our performer. Before the play even begins we find out that it is an audience participation show, with members of the audience given things to read out (items of the list we quickly learn), jobs to do, and roles to play, and whilst not all of them work (in some cases sheer nervousness from audience members got in the way, at others they weren’t given quite as much support as they might have appreciated for their job) most do, leading to hilarious, touching and very personal results. The show we were watching would never be exactly the same as any performances to come or past, and the uniqueness and flexibility of the show is something anyone can appreciate.
The play itself, first published two years ago and written by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, is full of charming moments and heart-wrenching ones. Crucially though, it is modest. This is not a play pleading for sympathy, nor is it pleading for understanding. It is more a play communicating with those suffering from depression, and promoting the qualities of life just as its main character does. It’s so uplifting and that is why this works as a comedy, as it reminds you to laugh, even at something as seemingly serious as a childhood pet being put down.
Rowland himself is extremely charming of course, with endless energy even after an obviously knackering performance (including a lengthy segment of simply running around the circle getting everyone to do a Mexican wave). He plays his character like a giddy school child, which for some of it he is. He embodies all the excitement of everything in his cheeky wee grins and his excitable tone, it’d be quite difficult not to smile if his character was happy. His joy also portrays a part of depression that is so often misconstrued; that people who appear happy cannot be depressed. It goes unsaid for the most part but it is present nonetheless, stressing the point without ever mentioning it. However, if there is a flaw in his performance one could pick holes in that he did not get to show a great deal of range, something that is usually a treat in one-performer performances. These usually require different characters and different emotions to be demonstrated instantly through contrasting each one to another, but here there is no such need as audience members play the other characters. It left Rowland’s performance a little too steady and similar. That is all I can criticise though, and it certainly isn’t something that most people would notice or care about, especially as most people are too busy smiling and laughing to take the time to fret over it.
This is not just an entertaining show but an important one. Of all the films, TV shows, YouTube videos and theatre productions on mental health, I think this is the first one I have seen for people with mental health difficulties, to make them laugh and show them the great things in life waiting for them. Not everyone’s gonna feel the same way about it, the play even acknowledges the naivety of expecting a list of wonderful things to change a deeply-routed disorder. Even so, I would encourage anyone and everyone to see it. This is indisputably, unequivocally, brilliant. Four stars.