Review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, National Theatre

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A brand spanking new musical on cancer, full of pathos and wit, is, frankly, just what the doctor ordered. We don’t talk about cancer anywhere near enough. And that is exactly the point behind this new show from Bryony Kimmings, which takes on our British reserve and makes a rebellious musical out of the tragic.

Emma (Amanda Hadingue) is a new mother and she turns up at a hospital for a series of tests on her new-born baby. Only these are not routine tests. The doctors found a shadow on her baby’s lung in an x-ray and so this ‘day in the life’ follows Emma as she steps on to a cancer ward for the first time and finds herself falling through a rabbit-hole into a Wonderland of death, dreams, and the desperate lives of those patients living with a cancer diagnosis.

The superb cast is largely comprised of cancer survivors and the musical itself is based on a wide range of interviews and research that creator and director Bryony Kimmings completed. It gives it all a resonance, but that would be to patronise the cast a little as, frankly, they are excellent.

There are some amazing voices and performances, most notably Golda Rosheuvel as Laura, a woman in denial about her need for a hospice, Naana Agyei-Ampadu whose vocals in her role as the straight-talking Gia are wonderful, and Rose Shalloo who gives a performance of real sensitivity as the young Shannon who is fearful of a genetic cancer that may well be found in her unborn child.

The tunes are all new too, coming from Bryony teaming up with Tom Parkinson. They’re funny and observant, ‘Kingdom of the Sick’ being particularly good. A lot of the tunes are like earworms – they wriggle in and you find yourself catching on to them immediately. But it’s their tone that got me. Prior to this, the only song I knew about cancer was from The Verve. And that, much like Bryony observes, is very ‘cancer face.’ The Drugs Don’t Work is superb but mournful. Everything around cancer is mournful. Here the music has as much wit as pathos.

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer by Bryony Kimmings by Complicite Associates Book Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel Music Tom Parkinson Lyrics Bryony Kimmings Direction Bryony Kimmings Set Lucy Osborne Costume Christina Cunningham Choreography Lizzi Gee Music Director Marc Tritschler Lighting Paul Anderson Sound Lewis Gibson Assistant Director Debbie Hannan Company Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Amy Booth-Steel, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Hal Fowler, Amanda Hadingue, Francesca Mills, Golda Rosheuvel, Max Runham, Rose Shalloo, Gareth Snook, Lottie Vallis, Gary Wood Band Oroh Angiama, Jon Gingell, Phil Gould, Marc Tritschler, Elizabeth Westcott

Must it be so wrong to laugh at cancer? To find humour in the darkest of places is absolutely something to be applauded. And it is this tone of the show, its anarchic spirit, which is its most attractive feature.

And that is particularly captured in the production design. We are situated in a sterile hospital ward, bland and unwelcoming, but this becomes filled with the ever encroaching inflatables of misshapen cancer cells that steadily fill the stage, as well as the lurid colours of the cast’s wardrobe, particularly when they dress up as the cancerous cells themselves. And the choreography is excellent, with everything from Motown Supremes-esque performances, to a rodeo show. It’s crazy and catchy.

The production isn’t flawless. Its energy is hard to sustain and there are a few moments where it is a bit flat, and I also found the central character hard to engage with. Emma is principally a vehicle for us, the audience, to enter the world of cancer – the patients, the nurses, the hospital, even cancer itself. Fair enough. But she is such an unsympathetic character that it does make the ‘in’ a little tricky. I’m all for complex central characters who aren’t likeable, but too often Emma was spiky and rude. A little tenderness wouldn’t have gone amiss.

But the real challenge comes with the last section of the show.

As the show reached its (open-ended) finale, the fourth wall came down and the cast invited the audience to share the names and their memories of loved ones they had lost to cancer. It was only at this point did I realise that many around me were in tears, clearly profoundly impacted by what they were watching.

A few names were shouted out by the audience and soon this trickle became a bit of a river as name after name was said out loud. Many handkerchiefs cane out of pockets, many wiping of eyes onto sleeves.

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer by Bryony Kimmings by Complicite Associates Book Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel Music Tom Parkinson Lyrics Bryony Kimmings Direction Bryony Kimmings Set Lucy Osborne Costume Christina Cunningham Choreography Lizzi Gee Music Director Marc Tritschler Lighting Paul Anderson Sound Lewis Gibson Assistant Director Debbie Hannan Company Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Amy Booth-Steel, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Hal Fowler, Amanda Hadingue, Francesca Mills, Golda Rosheuvel, Max Runham, Rose Shalloo, Gareth Snook, Lottie Vallis, Gary Wood Band Oroh Angiama, Jon Gingell, Phil Gould, Marc Tritschler, Elizabeth Westcott

Did it feel a bit like a group therapy session? Yes. A bit awkward? Perhaps. But I suspect that was the point.

If Bryony is making clear that we just don’t talk about cancer enough, that it’s our unpreparedness that is contributing so much to our fear and panic, then this moment at the end of each show is proving her point. There was such a palpable need from many in the audience to want to share their memories, to want to speak up about a disease that will affect one in two of us. It was like a bursting dam, and I realised that Bryony was right – we are not talking enough about cancer. If we were, the audience would have been silent.

I noticed a few reviews stating that these kinds of discussions don’t belong in a theatre. That’s an interesting discussion point in itself – what does and does not belong in a theatre. And who exactly is dictating those standards? But not only has Bryony Kimmings always been one to challenge conventional thought, (her previous shows looking at subjects such as STDs, alcohol and the coming-of-age of young girls) but second, if we’re not talking about cancer outside of a theatre, then maybe talking about it in a theatre is a great place to start.

If we look to theatre to provoke a change in society, to start a discussion, then A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer achieves that, hands down. And I for one don’t care about ruffling a few feathers around assumed protocol to achieve that. My admiration of Bryony Kimmings continues.

National Theatre, London to November 29, 2016

Tickets from £15

All production images by Mark Douet.

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