“It’s kind of nice combining my local pub with the theatre”, says Russell Fancourt, Director of Every Brilliant Thing, the Week 7 Old Vag Club production, his gaze darting between the series of mahogany tables and the somewhat haphazard semi-circle of empty chairs around us. We’re sitting in a small upstairs room in The Maypole; the gentle afternoon bustle of the bar below is just within earshot. For Fancourt, it’s “a free house” – “the place I really wanted to put the play on” – the ideal venue for an immersive theatre experience. “We’re semi-experimenting with the staging. We’re trying to make it feel like a pub, a social space where people go in and feel relaxed. At the same time, we want to adapt it so that it can function in the way we want it to” he explains. Georgia Vyvyan, the lead performer in this one-woman show, adds that “the script demands that the play be set in the most democratic way possible, so we’re avoiding the usual layout of the theatre.” It’s an intimate production, partly due to limited availability (there are only 30 tickets for each performance), but mainly because – as Vyvyan describes it – “the audience and the actor should feel like they are in a type of partnership of storytelling”.
Words like “partnership”, “support” and “help” recur over the course of our brief interview. Although Lyn Gardner describes the original Edinburgh Fringe show written by Duncan Macmillan as “one of the funniest plays you will ever see about depression, and one of the funniest plays full stop”, Fancourt’s Every Brilliant Thing is admits that “it’s a play about a chronic illness – it shouldn’t end on a ‘brilliant’ note because there is still stuff going on there”. He adds “I think we try to keep a few questions unresolved. The unreliable narration makes you realise that you can’t really take everything that you are being told at face value”. Vyvyan explains that “the play begins very much as though you are entering in the middle of a conversation, so we want to end it in a similar way, reasserting that this is still a life-long conversation, rather than with an “I’ve conquered depression, I feel warm and fuzzy now” feeling”.
The production team behind Every Brilliant Thing are keen to invite you – the audience – into this “conversation”. The performance hinges on trust – trust between the actor and her audience. As Vee Tames, who played ‘fake audience member’ during rehearsals, explains, “You have the core-story, led by Georgia, but you feel like it’s being rewritten each time you have a different audience member participating in it – a sense that the story will be different every night”. When I ask if she will be present during the real run, they assure me that she won’t be there – “We’re not doing any faking!” People might be asked to “help” Vyvyan “to fill in as a body” or “repeat a line”. Above all, “we can leave it to the magic of the night to see what happens”.
The cast are very understanding of those who have reservations about such an intimate and interactive piece of immersive theatre. Vyvyan appreciates that “audience participation can seem a bit daunting – both for the audience and for the actor – but I think that really speaks volumes about what the play is about. It can really illuminate times when you are lonely but not alone. And because of the way that the play’s been written – almost devised – I can trust that all of those audience interactions are placed at very careful moments in the text.” She puts particular emphasis here: “It becomes a relief to break that wall – it becomes enjoyable”.
For Fancourt, Every Brilliant Thing is “a really, really special script, unlike anything I’d ever seen or read”. They negotiated for three months to receive production rights; they persevered when their plans to do a “mini Cambridge tour” – same play, but different venue each night – fell apart. Now that the piece is finally coming together, it promises to be “life-affirming” – perhaps a little “bittersweet” – and undeniably unique. Vyvyan reminds me that the “main feeling” of this play is one of “support”: “everyone’s felt up and down in their lives, so we’re exploring and navigating that together, seeing it as something that is very real and domestic”. It fully embraces “an isolation and a togetherness”. There certainly haven’t been many plays like this put on in Cambridge – at the very least, it’s The Maypole’s first ever show. Every Brilliant Thing promises to be something else – something “incredibly special”.
Tickets for Every Brilliant Thing at The Maypole (Tuesday 11th– Thursday 13thJune 2019) are available here: https://everybrilliantthing.tessera.events/tickets/every-brilliant-thing