I was sitting in a coffee shop drinking an iced soy latte yesterday when the friend I was with told me his PSA levels were up and there was a hot spot in a lymph node in his groin. He was an older man and had already had cancer once before and he gave the news matter-of-factly, almost incidentally. I think I nodded dumbly, probably frowned, said I was sorry and asked some inane questions. I said something silly like ‘You’ve fought it once, you can fight it again.’ That’s kind of what you do when you find out someone has cancer. Your reactions become formulaic, charicaturish. You don’t know what to say or do so you fall into the patterns set by pop culture. You talk in terms of surviving and fighting the cancer. You call the person with cancer brave and strong. You talk about the battle that they’re going through. It was coincidence that I had this conversation only hours before I saw Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer later that evening and it remained fresh in my mind throughout the show.
Contrary to its title, the play isn’t a ‘How to’ manual on dealing with cancer, though Kimmings may have intended it to be when she first started research on it back in 2014. Instead it is a meditation on the language around cancer and the way it bends and contorts human relationships. Both funny and deeply moving, A Pacifist’s Guide takes a postmodern, fourth-wall-breaking approach to a play that is equal parts musical and documentary. The combination doesn’t seem like it should work and yet somehow the audience is entirely engaged, almost forgetting that the whole thing is meticulously planned and scripted.
Kimmings is famous for her nonconformist approach to taboo topics – sexual health (Sex Idiot) and her boyfriend’s depression (Fake It Til You Make It) to name just two – and with the help of fellow writers Brian Lobel and Kristy Housley, she brings the energy, sensitivity and humour for which she is famous to this latest work. The music by Tom Parkinson is dynamic, matched by the choreography by Sarah Blanc. Performers Eva Alexander, Gemma Storr, Lottie Vallis, Lara Veitch, Elexi Walker and Bryony Kimmings herself are incredible, their diversity on remarkable display as they jump from pop-rock band to sombre support group meeting as deftly as pulling on a T-shirt.
The first half is more densely joke and song packed, with Kimmings narrating the process of researching the play and her realisation that perhaps she isn’t the right person to be making it. She is honest about her failings and about her struggle in dealing with her son’s illness, which is represented in heart wrenching stillness and chaos. Three quarters in, the man next to me is wiping his eyes. The audience sniffles. By the end, the actors are crying too and the whole room feels raw and fragile and strangely connected. Many people stay in their seats for a minute or two after the show ends, collecting themselves.
WRITTEN BY / Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel with Kirsty Housley
MUSIC BY / Tom Parkinson
DIRECTED BY / Kirsty Housley
CAST / Eva Alexander, Bryony Kimmings, Gemma Storr, Lottie Vallis, Lara Veitch, Elexi Walker
SET & COSTUME DESIGN / Lucy Osborne
CHOREOGRAPHY / Sarah Blanc
LIGHTING DESIGN / Marec Joyce
SOUND DESIGN / Lewis Gibson
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR / Michael Keyamo
Playing 7 – 18 MAR 2018 at The Malthouse Theatre. Tickets and information can be found here.