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FringeReview UK 2017

A Pacifist’s Guide to the war on Cancer

Complicite Associates

Genre: Musical Theatre

Venue: The Dorfman Theatre


Low Down

This is a beautiful, artistically staged description of what cancer feels like on every level, psychological, physical, emotional and mental. The stage bursts with big anthems, shiny costumes, blood, and tears.


A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer: The Dorfman Theatre, October 19-November 29, 2016

All of life is a quilt and each of us are the threads that make up the whole. None of us know how long our thread will be, or the pathway it will take, but we all hope it will be very long and free from pain and anguish. Cancer is one of the worst terrors of modern life because it threatens to destroy that hope and replace it with anguish, pain and an untimely death. Most of us believe that death at an early age is fundamentally wrong. Our conversations avoid coming to terms with what illness brings to the human condition, the destruction, the anger, the illogical way it makes us feel. And that is where A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer comes in.

This is a beautiful, artistically staged description of what cancer feels like on every level, psychological, physical, emotional and mental. The stage bursts with big anthems, shiny costumes, blood, and tears. We meet every kind of cancer patient, each telling us his experience. The overall effect is a wild, yet heartbreaking celebration of ordinary life and death, one that every human being needs to see. Sadly, the production finishes at the end of November, but there is no doubt it will be performed again and again to force us all to realize that every human condition becomes easier to face when it is understood.

Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel wrote the book with a rousing score by Tom Parkinson. The show opens with Bryony Kimmings saying,” …….the language surrounding cancer is weird. Fierce battles, Brave Warriors. Inspirational survivors. It all sounds like what you say to sick people if you are really uncomfortable with talking honestly about illness.

“So it would be best to make a show about cancer that DIDN’T do any of that. And so it wasn’t boring or depressing… we would make it into a nutty weirdo of a musical.”

And that is just what this production team did. “For me, the most important starting point was about marginal experiences of cancer – stories that we don’t see often, and which might not fit into the world of ribbons, fundraisers and discrete, neatly ended storylines,” said Brian Lobel, co-author of the show.

He goes on to discuss what the word normal really means. So often, it simply means being well or not deviating from what is comfortable for the rest of us to accept. Lobel says, “A Pacifist’s Guide helps me imagine a world in which it is Normal to talk about fragility in public, and Normal to have cancer (with all its tricky, complicated realities) as a subject in artwork – even in a musical. That’s a Normal I’d like to go to.”

We meet Emma, played with great sensitivity by Amanda Hadingue and the central character in the plot. She has brought her baby into the hospital for a series of scans. While there, she meets a group of cancer patients including a radical feminist, a pregnant 18-year-old, a woman seeking a miracle cure for a terminal condition, a defiant working-class smoker and Stephen, a young man with a testicular problem who is accompanied everywhere by his mother. There are so many memorable moments in this show. The cast talks about “the cancer face” and the chemo experience: ”I just don’t want to die,” says one of the patients; and another: ”The friends I can’t be around are the ones with aggressive sorrow.”

Stephen (Gary Wood) is the patient followed around by his doting mother (Amy Booth-Steel) and somehow her simple remarks are heartbreaking because they make us realize how helpless we all feel when we face a life threatening disease in someone else. “I brought your pajamas,” she says. “I brought you some bread,”….She makes us realize how desperate she is to feel that she is doing something, when in reality there is nothing she CAN do. The disease will run its course and if medical treatments cannot stop it, she will lose her son.

In the second act, Emma’s child is diagnosed with cancer and she says, “What kind of god would give a child cancer?” There is not a person anywhere who hasn’t asked that question, when they feel abused by a cruel and impersonal fate. Indeed Emma and every character on stage is all of us.

At the end of the show, we are told that each person we saw on stage was a real persons story. The writers intention was to create a world that made the audience feel the fears, disappointments, the hopes and the denial that is part of having a cancer diagnosis.

The show is very long and often belabors the points it is trying to make. In its final scene, the actors break the fourth wall and become themselves. Suddenly the theatre feels like a consciousness-raising session, as we are all asked to call out names of people we know who have had cancer.

Yet, for all its very minor flaws, it is a powerful, moving piece of theatre. We cannot be told often enough that illness is a personal fight that each person must wage alone, no matter how many friends and relatives try to help That pain and fear is very real and must be faced honestly and dealt with on an individual level. The most any of us can do is to try to understand without judgment. Mark, (Hal Fowler) who is dying of lung cancer says, “Yeah I’ve smoked for over 30 years. Yeah I’ve put myself in the path of every carcinogen out there… I know you look at me and see a jobless waster, a self inflicted drain on the NHS, a terrible absent father whose daughter no longer gives a fuck… all painfully true…..”……What he is really saying is what the entire production is about: We all think we know how everyone should live their lives; what is right or wrong with what they think or do.

All too often, we, who are faced with someone dealing with the disease, try to minimize or deny its lethal prognosis. As Brian Lobel says, there is no such thing as normal. Each of us is what we are and must live out the life we have. Medical science can often prolong the days we have left, but the one thing we need to accept is that every life has a beginning and an end and we are powerless to do more than watch it happen.

A Pacifists’ Guide to the War on Cancer is important theatre. It has something to say to everyone about how to conduct his life. The one thing everyone must learn to respect is each person’s right to live and die the best way he can. It is that message that weaves through every vignette, every chorus, and every scene in this magnificent production. And it is that very message that makes it an unforgettable experience