Theatre reviews: Every Brilliant Thing | Mary & Ada Set the World to Rights

A quest for the simple joys of life, Every Brilliant Thing seems even more timely now than it did when it first appeared in 2014, writes Joyce McMillan

Naomi Stirrat in Every Brilliant Thing PIC: Tim Morozzo

Every Brilliant Thing, Beacon, Greenock ****

Mary and Ada Set the World to Rights , Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

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It was one of the biggest Edinburgh Festival Fringe hits of the last decade, now internationally acclaimed and loved; and so it makes every kind of sense that new Mull Theatre director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord should choose, as her first Scotland-wide touring production, to stage Every Brilliant Thing, the theatre version of Duncan Macmillan’s beautiful story of the same name, adapted for performance by Macmillan himself and the show’s original performer, Jonny Donohoe.

The theme is essentially mental health, and how to sustain it; and in a world emerging – we hope – from two years of pandemic trauma, it seems if anything even more timely than it did when it first appeared back in 2014.

The show tells the story of how the sole character – played here by the wonderful Naomi Stirrat – has sought to survive the experience of living with a depressive mother, whose suicide attempts scarred her childhood, and eventually led to her death.

Her response, at the age of seven, is to start a list of all the brilliant things that make life worth living, starting with ice cream and water fights. The list follows her through all the ups and downs of the next 20 years, eventually reaching almost a million entries.

What makes Every Brilliant Thing a uniquely memorable theatre experience, though, is the extent to which it involves its audience of 30 or 40 people – sitting in a circle around the playing area – in this quest for the simple joys of life.

We all have to read out entries to the list as the number on our piece of paper is called. Some of us are cast as characters, from kindly passers-by to the major role of Dad, who has to make a wedding speech.

No-one minds the audience participation, though; partly because the themes explored here speak so directly to everyone’s personal experience, and partly because Stirrat handles the whole story with such a wonderful mixture of vulnerability, lightness, and wry mocking humour that everyone simply longs to help out.

This beautiful show is a powerful affirmation of humanity and human kindness, at a time when it often seems in short supply; and also a reminder of the support we all need to sustain a sense of wellbeing in a troubled and troubling world.

After such an intense focus on the personal, though, it’s exhilarating to move into the world inhabited by Mary Somerville and Ada Byron, the two leading characters in Mary And Ada Set The World To Rights by Jane Livingstone. Both were passionate mathematicians, born in an age when women were not encouraged in such activities. During a brief conversation in a side-room at a London soiree, the two women – one brought up modestly in Burntisland, Fife; the other the aristocratic child of the late Lord Byron – form a bond.

The addition of a third and more sketchy character, Mary’s sister-in-law, who has to represent all the reactionary social tendencies of the age, is perhaps a slight weakness in what is otherwise a tightly-structured drama. Beth Marshall and Eilidh Loan, as Mary and Ada, both deliver exceptionally powerful and moving performances as two women of genius trapped in a world of foolish limitations.

Every Brilliant Thing on tour until 27 November, with dates in New Galloway, Dunoon and Aberfeldy. Mary And Ada, run ended.

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