I cried twice last night: once when Selasi was eliminated from the Bake Off (obvs), and once during A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer, Bryony Kimmings’ bold new musical in the National’s Dorfman Theatre. With Fake It ‘Til You Make It at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, Kimmings shone a revealing spotlight on male depression. With A Pacifist’s Guide, she takes on the big one. The C-word (not that one). Everyone’s worst fear. The result is a raw, messy, frequently frustrating, frequently heart-breaking show that confronts cancer with brashness and brio, but doesn’t really get anywhere.
Amanda Hadingue leads a diverse cast as Emma, a single mum whose baby has been admitted to hospital for some ominous tests. The audience follows Emma over the course of one nightmarish day, as she is shunted from waiting room to waiting room and garbled explanation to garbled explanation. Along the way, she meets other patients: a chippy, chain-smoking Northerner with lung cancer (Hal Fowler), a pregnant teenager concerned that her unborn child shares her genetic disorder (Rose Shalloo), a strident African-American feminist with soft-tissue sarcoma (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), and others. As the show proceeds, and as cancerous cells strengthen their grip on Emma’s baby, Lucy Osborne’s sterile, hospital waiting room set is gradually invaded by giant, inflatable tumours, ballooning onto the stage like mutant aliens.
Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight in Tom Parkinson’s rollicking, eclectic score. Fowler’s gruff, wheezing old-timer becomes a Stetson-wearing country and western singer in ‘Lonesome’, yodelling about his estranged daughter. Agyei-Ampadu belts out ‘My Poor Body’, an anthemic, soul-infused rejection of shallow social-media selfies. And Golda Rosheuvel, superbly raw as the terminally ill Laura, almost steals the show with ‘Silly Me’, a gentle, wistful, stars-in-their-eyes swansong. It’s the ensemble numbers that really get this party started, though. ‘Kingdom Of The Sick’ is a frantic, fast-paced homage to life in a hospital ward, with Thriller-esque zombies shambling their rhythmic way around the stage, bedecked in hospital gowns and nurses’ uniforms. And ‘Fuck This’ is an energetic, defiant middle-finger to the shit-serving cosmos at large.
But there is a big, gaping hole in the middle of A Pacifist’s Guide, as was nigh inevitable. Cancer is just one of those difficult topics. How can anyone flawlessly jazz-up an issue that encompasses an enormous amount of personal emotion for an enormous number of people? But, when confronted by the statistic that one in two (one in two!) people born after 1960 will suffer from some kind of cancer during their life, how can any theatre – not least the National – stick its head in the sand and mount another David Hare adaptation?
Here’s the thing: there is such overwhelming pluralism in society’s various responses to cancer – hope, grief, determination, desperation – that reducing it to a digestible two hours of song and dance is an impossible task, and yet its proliferation in the public consciousness demands to be addressed on stage. It’s a paradox, Marty. Kimmings et al. have undoubtedly done the right thing in giving it a shot, but in attempting to accommodate everyone (and their divergent emotions concerning cancer), they’ve ended up diluting their message to the point of banality; the general theme that runs through Kimmings’ book – co-written with Brian Lobel – is that cancer sucks, and we should talk about it more, but not if people don’t want to. And that’s pretty thin gruel for two hours theatre, particularly when all the literature points to something a bit profounder.
And it shows after in the largely music-less second half, when the theatrical boundaries break down and the cast shed their pretence. Kimmings, ever-present as an expositional voiceover, tells the audience that the characters are all real people she met, who really suffered – some of whom really died – from cancer, before inviting the cast and audience to share their own memories of loved ones. It’s tear-jerking, achingly sad stuff – cue the sobbing – but it’s also a copout, a shortcut, a naked ploy to profit on the audience’s own grief. Unable to fill the gap in her own musical, Kimmings has the paying punter do it for her. Which is a bit despicable, when you think about it.
A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer is on at the National Theatre until 29th November 2016. Click here for more details.