It feels weird to review a show that’s been running for 4 years, has already received tons of plaudits, and is nearing the end of an 8 month tour. But here goes. Every Brilliant Thing (written by Duncan McMillan and Jonny Donahoe, performed by Donahoe) is a confessional show about Donahoe’s life. Spurred on by his mother’s suicide attempt, 7-year-old Jonny starts compiling a list of all the things worth living for. It’s a wonderfully earnest act, and 30 years don’t seem to have crushed this man’s wonderful, earnest charm. At least, it seems that way at first.
The show’s performed in the round, allowing Donahoe to explore and use every inch of stage space. Under George Perrin’s direction, Jonny is relaxed and friendly. Audience interaction runs through the show, whether he’s asking audience members to call out various items on the list as it expands over his lifetime, or casting them as teachers, family members and veterinarians. You can tell Donahoe lives for these moments, and some of his improvised remarks with his impromptu performers get the biggest laughs. There’s more to it than just giving audience members a role in the show; Donahoe is literally sharing his life story with us. There’s an openness and warmth to it, scored by jazz, blues and soul; a tradition passed down from Donahoe’s parents.
There’s a spectre hanging over the show. Donahoe’s mother never recovered from her depression. Just as he shares his love of all the wonderful things in the world, every so often there’s a brief, wordless glimpse of the emotional weight he’s carried his whole life. He doesn’t hide his own struggles with depression, but only touches on them. It throws everything else into even clearer focus, and his optimism and warmth seem that much braver in that context. To paraphrase William Ernest Henley, depression has left Jonny Donahoe ‘bloodied, but unbowed.’