Last January, the playwright Duncan MacMillan asked if I’d work with him for a few days on a little project, “making something funny about depression.” Two years later, we’re still doing it, now in New York for a four-month run in Greenwich Village.
EVERY BRILLIANT THING is about a boy who creates a list of everything he can think of that’s special about the world, as a present for his depressed mother. During the show, I get the audience to read out entries from the list, for example, “Sunlight,” “Wearing a cape,” “Peeling off a sheet of wallpaper in one intact piece.” It’s essentially a one-man show, although I get audience members to play my dad and other characters as it progresses.
This is my first time performing in New York, and I arrived as nervous and excited as I did on the first day of high school. I’ve promised to keep a diary while here, as chances like this don’t often come around twice. And while the show has me meeting many downtown theatregoers, I wasn’t quite prepared for the famous faces.
Nov. 29 America is the land of exceptional service, where you can get anything, at any time, served with a smile. Except airport immigration, of course. But George Perrin, the director, and I are adept at dealing with the two-and-a-half-hour queue; we are, after all, British. Long queues and people barking orders just feel like normal service in Britain. For a brief second, I genuinely think they’ll turn us away when we show our passports and visas, but we’re in. It’s really happening.
Nov. 30 I wake up in the hotel where I’ll be staying until an apartment is ready. The room has two king-size beds and a bathtub large enough for two people to lie comfortably side by side. What kind of a relationship would you have to be in to require separate beds but still want to bathe together? Is this a New York thing? I include a photo here. For a sense of scale, I have placed two pairs of mens size ten shoes at the end of the bath.
Dec. 1 Before I arrived, my sister warned me, “I really don’t think Americans will find you funny.” We’re very close: The English just aren’t great at paying a compliment. This comment is on my mind as we spend the first few hours of rehearsal trying to work out what Britishisms just won’t cut it with a New York audience. “Crumpet” is replaced by “waffle.” My dog in the British version was named Ronnie Barker; no one here will get that pun, so he is now Sherlock Bones.
Dec. 4 Open dress rehearsal. These are performances where friends of the theatre the show to give us a dry run before the previews. I invite everyone I know in New York. They’re both busy. Still, everyone laughs a lot, and there are even a few sniffs and wet eyes during the sad bits. People like Sherlock Bones.
I’ve been told New Yorkers will hate the interaction, but they seem keen to be involved. The show is a bit rough-and-ready tonight, but they give us a standing ovation at the end. I’m reminded of the famous Hollywood actor I saw starring in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in Edinburgh. During the curtain call, he would open his arms and literally gesture everyone upward until they stood. Incredibly blatant, of course, but you’ve got to admire someone who always gets what they want.
Dec. 7 Jackie Hoffman! The Jackie Hoffman — the comic and actress, improv star and a real hero of mine — played my teacher in the show tonight. More accurately, she stole the show with her dry wit and timing. Afterward, I got my photo taken with her, which means whatever happens now, I’m happy with this trip.
Tonight was also a party for Paines Plough. The team from London flew in, and after a ridiculous number of photos and speeches we all went to a little French bar and drank until very late. American cocktails seem to be pure alcohol, and everyone keeps buying me drinks. To slow down the inebriation, I order a gin and tonic. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the barman pouring a highball glass full of gin, then garnishing it with a shot of tonic. Tomorrow will be horrible.
Dec. 14 After six shows open to critics, it’s opening night. Lots of notable names have been invited. I ended up with John Patrick Shanley, the playwright, as my dad and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the movie “Belle”) as my partner. Everyone afterward thinks I was trying to be “starry” by picking them out of the audience to participate, but at the time I hadn’t realized who either of them were. I can be a bit of an idiot like that.
I’m eating a mini-burrito at the party when someone taps me on the shoulder and tells me the reviews are out. They are brilliant. My friends back home are going to hate us. Later on the phone, my sister tells she was upset that one of them called me a “spunky, balding fellow” and another referred to me as “pudgy,” but I’m delighted. I am pudgy, balding and spunky. Why try to hide it?
Dec. 19 I’m shooting an excerpt from the show for The New York Times’s “In Performance” series. In the green room, a beautiful blond lady who looks strikingly like Courtney Love walks in. “Hello, I’m Courtney,” she says to me. How hard it must be, I think, to be a performer who looks so much like Courtney Love and has the same first name. We chat about what we’re working on, and she leaves.
My press guy, Michael, walks in. “Did you see Courtney Love?” he asks me. It’s only then that I realize the reason she looked so much like Courtney Love and talked so much like Courtney Love was because she actually was Courtney Love.
The reviews have been out a week, I’m settled in New York, but thankfully I’m still as much of an idiot as ever before.
This blog is taken from an article written by Jonny for the New York Times: That’s Sherlock Bones to You, Mate
Check out Jonny’s website to read more blogs.
EVERY BRILLIANT THING runs at Barrow Street Theatre until March 29. Tickets are available here.