Despite its title, The Eulogy of Toby Peach is more about life than about death. Peach, writer and performer of this life-affirming monologue, counts out his time on this planet in days and minutes – dizzying, incomprehensible numbers. But since being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (a cancer of the lymph nodes) aged 20, those numbers – and what is done with them – matter.
The Eulogy of Toby Peach is of the “you have to laugh or you’ll cry” school in its irreverent attitude towards cancer. Peach, a consistently engaging performer, attacks the disease with all the weapons humour can offer him. As he recalls his first diagnosis, we’re all welcomed to the Cancer Club, where it’s always happy hour and the chemotherapy cocktails are on the house. Later, his treatment is framed as a toxic relationship with IV(y), a girl who’s poisonously good fun.
It’s not all laughs though. It might be via surreal means, but Peach powerfully addresses the psychological impact of a disease that’s likely to affect all of us in some way. The hardest thing to accept, he suggests, is that fighting cancer is a battle of the body with itself; the disease resides within, rather than entering from somewhere external. Or, as Peach quips, “it’s just a terrible one-man show where you play all the parts”.
The show is also an ode to everyone who saved him a little bit along the way: the scientists of past and present who have advanced the treatment of cancer, the doctors and nurses who saw him through from diagnosis to remission, the girlfriend at his side throughout. And it’s a timely, implicitly political love letter to the NHS, without which Peach – and so many like him – might not be here. When Peach quotes that other crucial set of numbers, telling us how much his treatment would have cost, it’s a startling demonstration of the importance of free healthcare.
Ultimately, though, it’s a very personal story, and unashamedly so in its telling. This is about Peach’s particular experience of cancer and as a result its focus can feel a little narrow at times. But through particularity – rather than misplaced aspirations to the universal – Peach finds a way of speaking about something that reaches far beyond himself.
What the show really shares with the eulogy is its celebration of life – it’s just a life that hasn’t ended yet. And after spending an hour with Peach, it’s hard not to leave feeling a bit more grateful for however many days, minutes and seconds you might have left.