Review: "Every Brilliant Thing" at the Berkeley Street Theatre

Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Critic

I have been sitting on this article for awhile because the impact of Duncan MacMillan’s ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ has finally hit me.

It’s a one-person story told in a theatre in the round bare stage setting at Toronto’s Berkeley Street house.  The narrator breaks the fourth wall in speaking to the audience and tells her story how she has coped with her mother’s suicidal thoughts and tendencies. In between moments that are not so pleasant, the narrator has written items and points of interest on every brilliant thing that life has to offer people no matter the darkest hour or fear that we may confront.

It’s a bare stage upon entrance to the auditorium. Actress Kristen Thomson who plays the narrator, along with other Berkeley Street/CANSTAGE employees, went around to the audience asking us to partake in this production when the number on our card is called.

Recently, in other articles, I’ve referred to some performers in other productions who are wonderful raconteurs of plot events. Ms. Thomson is up there with the best of them.

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Under Brendan Healy’s subtle direction, she delivers a sensitive and compassionate performance of a bewildered youth who matures before our eyes in trying to live her life in the shadows of a parental figure who has “hurt herself because she’s sad.” In between these moments of despair and hopelessness, I was invited on a journey to travel with the narrator through some of her happiest times, some comical moments, and some moments of despair where I wondered how anyone would be able to cope with what transpired.

Ms. Thomsen fluidly moved up and down the stairs as she told her story from various vantage points in the auditorium. In a wonderfully funny moment, she didn’t want to forget audience members in the balcony so she motored up to the heavens (out of sight for a brief moment with microphone in hand talking to all of us) to high five members there. Sure, she was out of breath when she returned to the stage and needed water to re-hydrate before continuing but she did. Wonderfully.

At this opening night performance, Ms. Thomson respectfully asks people to be a part of the performance for a few minutes as she tells her story. I’m sure she’s also prepared what to do in case some people don’t want to take part or may freeze in front of a large crowd. From my perspective, she certainly knew how to handle a crowd and maintain their interest. At the top of the show, she invited one gentleman up to take part. She told him he only had one thing to ask – the question Why? (as a young child would). Thomson had to keep prodding the man which became quite funny. She didn’t let this moment faze her at all, and that entertaining  moment of the plot, in its humour, also held a tremendous impact. A true professional artist at work here.

Final comments: I can’t help but make comparisons of this story to Neil Pasricha’s The Book of Awesome published in 2010. In Pasricha’s book, he writes about the big celebration of life’s little moments in letting humanity know that life is worth living no matter what.  As a cancer survivor, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ certainly struck a chord within me especially as I heard some of those moments in life that Ms. Thomson relayed to us in knowing that life is meant to be lived.

I can’t even begin to imagine, and I feel awful, when I hear of individuals who have suicidal thoughts and tendencies in hearing they don’t like life anymore. 2009-2010 were dark hours for my family and me as we dealt with the death of my younger brother from cancer, my cancer diagnosis and recovery, and a niece who also went through a tumour removal and recovery.  Duncan MacMillan’s play, handled with a dignified grace by Kristen Thomson, made me realize once again that life is meant to be lived fully by all of us. Her message to anyone who is thinking of suicide is, “Don’t do it. It will get better.” Get to see ‘Every Brilliant Moment’ if you can.

‘Every Brilliant Thing’ continues to December 16, 2018 at Toronto’s Berkeley Downstairs in the round theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto. Visit to purchase tickets online or telephone 416.368.3110.

Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.

Directed by Brendan Healy. Set and Costume Design by Victoria Wallace. Lighting Design by Steve Lucas. Sound Design by Richard Feren. Stage Manager by Marinda De Beer.

Photo of Kristen Thomson in performance by Dahlia Katz.