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

A musical about cancer is of course, no easy feat. Complicité and performance Artist, Bryony Kimmings (with the help of co-writers, Brian Lobel and Tom Parkinson) aim to get people talking about cancer, death and illness in a more constructive way. The production wants to start a war with cancer and put a middle finger up to the disease that kills one in three of us. Approaching such a sensitive and well documented subject matter, Kimmings’ choices remain significantly brave throughout and take us on a bizarre, colourful and at times heartbreaking journey through a cancer patient’s battle.

It begins with Kimmings herself introducing the piece via voiceover, with a brief explanation of what the audience are in for in terms of musically tackling the tricky subject, without making it boring and depressing. The story follows Emma (Amanda Hadingue), a middle aged single mother taking her infant child for some worrying tests at the hospital. She meets a collection of other cancer patients, interacting with them as she hears their gruesome dealings with cancer, all the while still terrified about her own baby boy’s diagnosis.

The format of the show’s first half is oddly predictable but engaging nonetheless. Each character gets a moment to tell their story through the medium of song, which has it’s moments in terms of emotional depth. The show highlights the modern world’s dependence on social media, insensitive doctors and nonchalant patients in a relatively generic way.. Kimmings says in an interview that people “expect cancer to be dramatic when in reality it’s boring and lonely” and this is definitely captured in the first half. However, through colourful cancerous cells dancing around the stage, acrobatic nurses and bizarre musical numbers with stunning choreography by Lizzi Gee, the mundane is made marvellous. Lucy Osbourne’s set design is neat and simplistic but also parallels the theme of wackiness with inflatable, cancerous growths closing in on the action throughout.

Tom Parkinson’s music gives a jaunty and bizarro twist to the somewhat frustrating atmosphere of London life and the stereotypical reactions to cancer, most amusingly the “cancer face”. Parkinson’s songs are catchy and cleverly constructed and the varying styles prove his immense versatility as a song-writer. The welcoming to the hospital is a spectacular ensemble piece named “Kingdom of the sick” which is truly a highlight.

The second half will certainly divide opinion. Unfortunately, music takes a backseat and is replaced with pre-recorded interviews from Kimmings to cancer patients. It may have been preferable for the show to continue in the same vein as the first half. The audience were in a particular world that was bizarre and engaging and then were asked to leave it abruptly. The characters weren’t developed enough and the piece slowed down considerably. There are certainly incredible, heart warming moments but it feels a little awkward and over-indulgent by the end.

There is no weak link in this talented cast. Each actor is captivating and accessible and they work terrifically as an ensemble. Golda Rosheuvel’s performance in the tragic role of Laura is nothing short of extraordinary. Rosheuvel seems to have the whole package, with a superb singing voice, an excellent stage presence and a superbly real naturalism when called upon. There are also strong performances from Rose Shaloo, and Gary Wood’s performance of “Castaway” is a particularly poignant moment from an incredible singer and actor.

Bryony Kimmings directs with flair and robustness. She has undoubtedly produced a thought provoking and bold piece that tackles cancer with gusto in place of reverence. The production dips into a rather frustratingly mushy end, but certainly holds the attention of its audience. There’s no doubt that it will shift some opinions on how to act around someone who is afflicted by cancer, and that in itself is a triumph.

A Pacifist’s Guide To The War on Cancer is running at The Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre until 29 November for information and tickets visit: thenationaltheatre.com

Calum McIntosh

Calum is an Actor and Writer from London. In his spare time he enjoys football, travelling and creating theatre. He is currently writing a screenplay about Sunday League Football, and will be touring to America with The HandleBards in 2017.