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Edinburgh Fringe 2022

Cicely and David

Pennyland Players

Genre: Community Theatre, Historical, New Writing, Theatre, True-life

Venue: Royal Scots Club


Low Down

A Polish migrant, David Tasma, is dying from cancer in post-war London. Cut off from home and family and feeling his existence has had no value, David develops an intense and elusive relationship with his social worker, Cicely Saunders. The two explore questions of compassion, faith, love and the meaning of a completed life. An idea grows in Cicely’s mind about a new way to care for someone who is dying in distress. A fleeting encounter between two people of hugely different social backgrounds leads to fundamental changes in how we care for people at the end.

All ticket proceeds go to the Hospices of Hope – Ukrainian Appeal



Cicely and David is a gentle telling of the story of a close friendship formed in 1947 between a Polish refugee and Cicely Saunders, a young hospital almoner, as social workers were known in those days. Cicely Saunders had an Oxford degree, had trained as a nurse and then as a social worker. Ela Majer “David” Tasma was a Polish-Jewish refugee who had fled Poland in the 1930s and by the late 1940s was working as a waiter in the West End. He didn’t know his parent’s fate during Nazi occupation but was sure they had been sent to the death camps. At the time they met he was dying of cancer and on his death bequeathed her £500 (equivalent to £19,000 in 2021) to be “a window in your home”. This donation helped germinate the idea that would become St Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham, London and is celebrated in glass at the hospice’s entrance.

This new play by David Clark (a noted biographer of Dame Cicely) and performed by Edinburgh’s Pennyland Players tells the story of that friendship and the impact of David’s bequest. The young cast and three directors are all (bar Tegan Smith who plays young Cicely) drama students from Queen Margaret’s University in Edinburgh.

The story begins in the garden of St Christopher’s hospice in Sydenham, South London where an elderly Cicely meets young widower Paul (Michael Johnston) who shares his story of the care his late wife received and how much difference the hospice made. When he realises who he is talking to he cannot thank her enough for everything she has done and wants to know more. With a twinkle in her eye – clearly visible from even the back row – she suggests they go inside for a wee whisky and to hear more.

The set is simple, three panels and a few planters on the stage suggest the garden, the panels are then turned by crew in hospital scrubs to create an inner space from which Cicely and Paul watch the younger Cicely and David play out their story in the space in front of the stage. A good choice by the directors as it brings the core part of the story into the auditorium space and makes it feel much closer to us.

The writing is naturalistic and tells the story well. The three young directors made good use of the space with minimal props and set. There are elements that could be developed – we see hints of David’s distress as he faces death no knowing what happened to his family and concerned about his lack of faith; young Cicely’s friend Woozle expresses concern that Cicely is growing too close to David and may cross the line between professionalism and involvement (some sources suggest that Cicely was in love with David, although there is no suggestion that this led to a physical relationship). Both these threads could be developed to bring out more of David’s story and of the passion for palliative care that it ignited in Cicely. In the longer term it deserves to be developed further and seen more widely.

Original live piano music is provided by Kath Bruce and underscores sections of the play. It doesn’t intrude or override any of the action, merely heightening the emotional impact.

Piano improvised and played by Kath Bruce provided a delightful and delicate underscoring to elements of the story.

Serena Park as the older Cicely is utterly convincing and never drops out of character, even when merely sitting watching alongside an equally attentive Johnston. Both are very impressive as young actors playing much older characters.

Tegan Smith creates a very believable early Cicely with a cut glass RP accent, taking us back to 1947. Jaimie Busitill was an excellent David, and like the others believable as a 40 yr. old. Arlene Mckay provides a nicely concerned and slightly spiky friend to Cicely challenging her as she worries that Cicely might be getting too close to David.

Overall, a fascinating introduction to the life of an extraordinary woman who went on to have immeasurable impact on the care of individuals and their families over half a century. It certainly had an impact on many of the audience, from my neighbour who hadn’t know what to expect and was surprised at the impact it had had on her to the comments overheard in the bar afterwards. Well worth seeking out the Royal Scots Club to see.