A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

When the voice of Bryony Kimmings - writer and director of this piece and "performance artist by trade" - asks at the start "how could you make a show about illness and death without risking no one coming?", the cynical answer may be "easily, it's a worthy idea that's been done all over the Edinburgh Fringe for starters". Even when she says she plans to do it by making it a "nutty weirdo musical" she could be lifting that idea from an albeit little known US show called Cancer! The Musical. So arguably the premise here - take a serious subject and subvert the style to make the audience question their own attitudes and behaviours - whilst powerful, is not quite as unique and original as this show's developers seem to believe.

As well as the tap along musical numbers, we have moments of comedy in the mundane, dancing and rapping cancer 'blobs' and giant inflatable genes

We follow a day in the life of living with cancer through the eyes of 'cancer newbie' Emma, taking her baby in for tests to the hospital - the 'kingdom of the sick' introduced by the other more seasoned patients and staff in a showbiz dance number that is reminiscent in both style and sound of Mormon's Spooky Mormon Hell Dream - on a large, grey set that is multiply doored all around but with no clear route through or exit from.

The following songs range from country to doowop to disco; at times catchy, funny and moving and with some outstanding solo performances (particularly Naana Agyei-Ampadu's heartbreaking soulful battle with being poked and prodded in My Poor Body, and Golda Rosheuvel belting out the disco anthem Miracle which you bop along to whilst computing that this is actually her reaction to being told the only option left to her is to accept death).

It's at these times that it is most powerful with the words being used contrasting so much with the style of delivery, illustrating our own natural tendency to deny reality - and it is all the more impactful for enabling the conversation in this way.

But both its strengths and weaknesses lie in that it isn't really just a musical, jumping through many different styles and structures, to take us on a journey from surreal to heightened reality (I'm purposefully avoiding using the term 'meta' here). As well as the tap along musical numbers, we have moments of comedy in the mundane, dancing and rapping cancer 'blobs' and giant inflatable genes that make up most of the first half - all the way to stripped down actors playing themselves and conversing with the ethereal voice of Bryony in the second. The problem for me is that the contrast of the surreal isn't strong enough and doesn't last long enough to stop the mainly scripted 'real' sections from feeling emotionally exploitative.

For it's the section after the interval that will either make or break the experience for most people. I say the section after the interval as the programme states that there should be no break which may have helped as the final layers of the pretence are ripped sharply away when the disembodied Kimmings announces "Pause. This is where their first day ends" - bringing the story to a close as the characters that have never quite been given time to flesh out have reached various levels of acceptance of their situations. The aim here isn't to expect a show can cure cancer but that it can help us "talk about illness and death more". And so they do.... Staging disappears, costumes come off (or rather are replaced by casual 'actors-in-rehearsal' attire) and the voices of the real people the characters are based on discuss their experiences with their respective players.

The underpinning reality is deep and moving - and there's a feeling of catharsis as audience members call out the names of loved ones. Moreso when a real cancer patient who helped with the research process nervously comes on stage to tell her own story. There are many tears and much encouragement of support for each other in the room. It creates an atmosphere akin to a group therapy outpouring of emotion that some will feel is the making of this piece. Others, like me - possibly leading to assumptions that I'm hard of heart - will find this awkward and uncomfortable, almost feeling forced to be moved by what feels heavy-handed and making us the friends with the "aggressive sorrow" dismissed in one of the early scenes as the wrong kind of reactions friends should have.

There's plenty to like however and it's certainly an unusually interesting piece - if not quite as unusual as it thinks. But this is what the Dorfman should be doing - on the heels of The Flick and Our Sisters of Perpetual Succour (passing over Sunset at The Villa Thalia) - trying out different, challenging and thought-provoking pieces you wouldn't see at many other places in the West End. It's not necessarily important whether you like the particular style on show but you're almost guaranteed to get something out of the experience that makes every piece at this venue well worth a try.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

An all-singing, all-dancing examination of life with a cancer diagnosis. This brand new musical confronts the highs and lows of the scariest word we know.

Expect big anthems, shiny costumes, blood, tears and real cancer patients in this rip-roaring, heartbreaking celebration of ordinary life and death.