List rites

Review by Sean McQuaid

Every Brilliant Thing
Beaconsfield Carriage House, Charlottetown
January 19, 2023

PEI theatre often hibernates in January, even a January as unnaturally warm as this one; so it’s a welcome off-seasonal treat when Benton Hartley’s admirable indie production company Desert Island Theatre comes in from the not-so-cold with a smart, funny, moving show like Every Brilliant Thing, written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. 

Directed by Greg Doran (whose Vagabond Productions returns with Twelfth Night at UPEI in March) and stage managed by Kassinda Bulger (actor and member of the Popalopalots improv comedy troupe), Every Brilliant Thing features producer and Desert Island founder Hartley as the narrator/star/facilitator of—well, let’s call it a crowd-sourced one-man show. 

See, Hartley’s sort of the lone performer here, doing most of the talking; but he also leads extensive audience participation, recruiting patrons as scene partners in dialogues—a process he coaches them through, feeding them lines, scenarios, props, instructions—and he also hands out cards to the audience with lines to be spoken when Hartley cues them (more on that later). 

If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry; improv comedian Hartley (another Popalopalots veteran) has good instincts for audience interaction, and he’s not oppressively pushy. As the stage directions in the play’s published script say, the audience members “need to feel relaxed and safe,” and Hartley builds an amiable atmosphere that’s more like a party game than a pop quiz. 

English playwright Duncan Macmillan adapted the play from his short story “Sleeve Notes” in a compact script written for the Miniaturists and performed by Rosie Thomson. Macmillan and George Perrin spent years turning it into a full-length play, culminating in the 2013 premiere of Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Perrin and performed by comedian Jonny Donahoe. 

The show was a hit, and its eventual published version custom-tailored its text and stage directions to incorporate lessons from the stage productions. As Macmillan puts it, the print version “has been filtered through Jonny’s interactions with hundreds of audiences,” such that Donahoe “essentially co-authored the play while performing it.”

The play’s narrator recounts how his chronically depressed mother attempted suicide when he was a child, and how he tried to cheer her up by writing a list of all the great stuff that makes life worth living (every brilliant thing); he expands this list over the years, eventually impacting his own mental health struggles as an adult. The cards Hartley gives the audience are numbered items from that list; he calls out numbers, and people read out whatever is on their corresponding cards.

Of the six performances, Hartley said in a recent CBC Mainstreet interview, “it could be six completely different shows depending on who the audience is that night.” Opening night had multiple interactive highlights, such as politician Peter Bevan-Baker cracking up Hartley with a quasi-heartwarming speech as the narrator’s father. 

The play deals with disturbing topics, and Hartley hopes his show can help further erode any stigma around depression and suicide. A son of psychologists, he has long been fascinated by this type of story—Desert Island Theatre’s fine 2019 show Punch Up also featured Hartley as a character trying to inspire a suicidal woman to live—but like Punch Up, this show also succeeds as entertainment. 

Macmillan’s tragicomic, resonantly human tale is scary and sad with lots of humour and heart, often laugh-out-loud funny. While Hartley’s pacing feels a little rushed in spots, he does some of his best work here, forming and sustaining a rapport with his audience/collaborators while hitting the shifting emotional beats of the story, showing impressive range as he strikes a tricky tonal balance with a winning mix of charm, comedic verve and pathos. 

As Hartley himself has said of the play, “It’s a funny, comedic, uplifting, heartwarming piece about depression and suicide.” Counterintuitive as that combination might sound, he’s absolutely right; and this well-crafted production is a great way to make some dark January nights a little brighter.