James Rowland on the startling Every Brilliant Thing

James Rowland in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo supplied.
James Rowland in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo supplied.

Actor James Rowland has come from the UK to Brisbane – it’s his first time in this city, but not the country. Following a week of previews in London, he’s here to perform in Duncan Macmillan and Johnny Donohoe’s one-man play Every Brilliant Thing.

This play is the story of a seven-year-old boy whose mother attempts to commit suicide. To cheer her up, he starts writing a list of every brilliant thing. The rules he gives himself are: no repetition, the thing must be genuinely wonderful or life affirming, and not too many material items. “It starts as a way of cheering his mother up”, Rowland explains, “and becomes an almost completest idea to catalogue every brilliant thing about the world.”

Rowland plays the unnamed narrator and the audience plays some of the other characters in the show (the boy’s father, a teacher, a vet), and the audience also plays ‘the list’. “When they come in [to the theatre], I give them list entries. And when I say their number, they will call out their entry”, Rowland explains.

There’s no real artifice in it, it’s played with houselights still on the audience, and it’s a story you make with the people there. Obviously, if someone doesn’t want to, that’s absolutely fine. You try to never put someone on the spot. Audience participation can be something that feels quite threatening, but the situation of this show it’s not…. It’s everyone in the room making a story together and I’m just sort of guiding a little bit.

He says that the show is “scripted-ish, it takes a shape… It’s as scripted as it needs to be.” Rowland reiterates that Every Brilliant Thing talks about universal things from a personal perspective.  He adds “I saw it in its first run in Edinburgh in 2013 and I was in bits by the end.”

When I ask about the show’s appeal and the way it affects audiences, Rowland says:

None of the things in the list, and none of the experiences, are alien or so generic… Through its personal-ness it opens up – it lets people in and think about their own brilliant things. That’s an almost universal response to seeing the show… when people leave they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that little thing, that’s nice’. It’s a show about a lot of things, but it’s definitely about depression and mental health and amazingly I think that’s something we’re waking up to as something we all experience, whether it’s personally or through a friend or a family member.

So what would be the top of Rowland’s own list of brilliant things?

In London, one of my favourite things are tube mice. There are half a million tube mice who exist in the underground train system, in the tube, in London, and it is the worst place in the world but somehow these mice make a life there and… I think my brilliant thing is any sort of animal that shouldn’t be living in the city that manages to make a life there.

He carries on to explain that though the tube mice are pretty nocturnal, you see them at night and in the early morning. “It always feels like a little victory. If they can make it, why can’t I?”

The show, playing in QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre until March promises to be an intimate, emotional and unusual night at the theatre so come and see Every Brilliant Thing and find out if it makes your list. For more information, visit QPAC’s website.

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