Every Brilliant Thing, An Tobar and Mull Theatre; The Tempest, Tron Theatre Company Reviews by Mark Brown

EVERY Brilliant Thing, the 2013 play by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, is a highly original, deeply humane and extremely funny work of stage drama. Written to be performed by a single actor, it is built upon the intelligent premise that its central subject – namely, clinical depression – is best explored in the theatre by means of interaction between actor and audience.

Originally created for an unnamed protagonist who was young, male and English, the play has been recast (with Macmillan’s blessing) for this excellent production by Tobermory-based arts organisation An Tobar & Mull ­Theatre. Directed by the company’s recently ­appointed artistic director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, the piece – which tours points as diverse as Oban, Greenock, New Galloway and Aberfeldy – is ­performed by the exceptional young ­actor Naomi Stirrat.

Working on a minimal set that is ­copiously supplied with props, ­Stirrat plays Macmillan and Donahoe’s ­character (whose mother suffers from a depression so profound that it has led her to attempt suicide) as a ­Hebridean, ­Gaelic-speaking young woman.

The “brilliant things” of the play’s title are the reasons for living – starting with “ice cream”, and including “things with stripes” and “people falling over” – that, as a little girl, our ­protagonist wrote as a list in the hope of saving her Mum’s life.

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This list – which grows, throughout the character’s childhood and early ­adulthood, to consist of many thousands of brilliant things – forms the basis for the show’s benign element of audience participation. To give away more would be to get into spoiler territory: suffice it to say that the production’s requests for ­audience involvement are gentle, humorous and a million miles away from the lung-bursting contributions of ­pantomime season.

I must confess, pantos aside, I have long been sceptical of theatre productions that require audience participation. They are often given to gimmickry and can become magnets for the exhibitionist tendency in the theatre audience.

This piece is different, however. The audience engagement is carefully ­considered and purposeful, generating an empathy with the narrator’s experiences (of her mother’s hospitalisation, her ­father’s coping mechanisms, and her own emotional and romantic life after leaving home) that is crucial to the effectiveness of the show.

The play is beautifully conceived, ­cleverly structured and ­compassionately written. However, it is constructed in a way that requires of its performer ­tremendous ability, confidence and, ­indeed, personal charm.

Fortunately, these are qualities that Stirrat has to burn. On Tuesday ­evening at the village of Pennyghael, on the ­southern peninsula of Mull, she was ­performing to a very small audience.

By the very nature of this drama, such circumstances place an additional ­burden on the actor. Stirrat, however, was entirely unfazed, making a virtue out of a necessity, improvising brilliantly on the situation and successfully generating enough intimacy and bonhomie to fuel a dozen shows.

From our narrator’s mum ­correcting the spelling and grammar in her ­life-affirming list, to dad and ­daughter having nothing to say in the car ride from school to ­hospital, the piece ­positively fizzes with recognisable ­human behaviours. Likewise the love, connection, emotional investment and agonising ­difficulties bound up in the protagonist’s relationship with her university ­sweetheart, Sam.

The National: Tempest.

It takes an outstanding actor like ­Stirrat to bring this splendid piece of chamber theatre fully to life. However, that process is rendered slightly easier by a fabulous musical score.

By dint of the narrator’s father’s excellent taste in music, this production boasts, surely, one of the greatest soundtracks in world theatre; including, as it does, tracks by Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Curtis Mayfield.

FROM one real, Scottish island to a famous, fictional one. In Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, we find Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan and a sorcerer, lording it over an enslaved local, Caliban, and an entrapped sprite, Ariel, on a Mediterranean island. The play, in which the wizard shipwrecks members of the courts of Milan and Naples on his island, is remarkably flexible. It certainly lends itself to Andy Arnold’s often impressive new staging for the Tron Theatre Company, which boasts a female Prospero, and, indeed, an ­entirely female cast.

The production was originally ­conceived for Arnold’s Covid-disrupted “actors only” series, which was to have prioritised large casts over expenditure on design. However, if set designer Jenny Booth was required to penny pinch she should be congratulated on a work of ­theatrical alchemy.

When we first see the ever-excellent Nicole Cooper’s Prospero, the blue-blooded enchanter is sitting in his ­(Arnold has not altered the play’s pronouns) library. The room is illuminated by light pouring through two stained glass windows.

If costume designer Victoria Brown was, as per the original concept, required to dress the cast from existing company stock, she also deserves accolades. The characters appear in a simple attire (as if from the turn of the 19th and 20th ­centuries) that separates them from Shakespeare’s time and from ours.

“The isle,” as Caliban says, “is full of noises”, and Arnold’s production is suitably supplied with atmospheric sound and music that nods meaningfully to the Arabic music of North Africa and the Middle East.

Cooper is a superb Prospero. Compelling in his power, yet chilling in his moral certainty, this is a nuanced and memorable rendering of the magical duke.

The intelligent casting extends to Liz Kettle’s superb Caliban. Dignified and articulate, her rebellious slave speaks his angry poetry (“You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse”) with beautifully controlled rage.

The Basque actor, and long-time ­performer on the Scottish stage, Itxaso Moreno was almost born to play Prospero’s indentured sprite, Ariel. Her boundless energy and her tremendous facility with movement combine with her great verbal expressiveness to create a robust fairy that sits perfectly between the ­ethereal and the corporeal.

Despite these many strengths, there are aspects of Arnold’s production that fall disappointingly short. For instance, the humorous “fish monster” scene, in which the drunken butler Stephano mistakes Caliban and the jester Trinculo (who are hidden together under a cloak) for a two-headed sea beast is all but thrown away.

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In fairness, it’s possible that Covid protocols forbid Arnold from having two ­actors lie, one on top of the other, on the floor. Nevertheless, opting instead to have Kettle stand behind a household broom doesn’t cut the comic ­mustard.

The director has gone with a largely young cast, which leads to some unevenness in the acting. There are, for instance, some moments of overacting that one would have liked to see Arnold rein in.

More problematic still is the director’s truncation of the play to a mere 90 ­minutes. Important aspects of the plot are lost: for instance, Prospero’s cruel testing of Ferdinand (the prince of Naples who has fallen in love with the sorcerer’s daughter, Miranda) is so pared back that it barely seems like a tribulation at all.

This handsome, often clever production has more than enough going for it to sustain another 30 or 45 minutes. One can’t help but feel that it would have been more successful had Arnold opted to perform the play at something closer to its original length.

Every Brilliant Thing tours Scotland until November 27: comar.co.uk

The Tempest’s run has ended