It’s easy to feel uncertain about a show that draws so directly from the life of the performer, so soon following a life-changing brain cancer diagnosis, but Phoebe Frances Brown makes sure to reassure us from the start: “I don’t want you watching this and feeling miserable”. We might cry, but she really hopes we’ll laugh as well.
It’s that spirit of generosity which permeates this made-for-screen version of the show, filmed in locations throughout Nottingham Playhouse. The format is a successful way to add extra sprinkles of dynamism to a one woman show, not that Frances Brown needs it, hugely engaging and warm as she is.
Punctuated with voice recordings from friends and family, videos of Frances Brown’s life, and the resurgent motif of childhood optimism, it’s an intimate and immersive experience which succeeds in reaching out and finding connection with its audience. Frances Brown is a passionate actor whose career in London is starting to pick up (the Playhouse backstage interiors serve the story well), and just at that moment learns she has an incurable cancer, a tumour which affects the very areas of the brain of language and memory she relies on as an actor.
We’re pulled through the difficult subject with seamless ease, a dynamic journey through highs and lows – and the way highs and lows must be re-contextualised in the wake of brain surgery and radiotherapy. We keenly feel how simply being able to return to rehearsals for a show is the most elating triumph, and it’s of course, incredibly touching.
I was initially surprised that there was no attempt to fictionalise the people involved in the narrative, but then, thinking about it a little more, it seemed to be the only approach that makes sense. Theatre-goers are used to seeing fictionalised one person shows drawing on a performer’s life but deviating from it. Or non-fictionalised shows that are careful to maintain some privacy. But this is Phoebe Frances Brown’s life living with an incurable cancer. That’s the whole point. It’s potentially the most vulnerable version of the show you could make, and that’s part of what makes it work so well, despite my initial worries about welfare. It’s also a play that celebrates the community around her, nurses and acting colleagues, the small gestures that make you feel held. We never think it can happen to us until it does, and we’re here to be shown how that feels, and what happened next.
Because of the subject matter, there was always going to be an emotional well to draw on, but the show has a lot of personality on top of all that too. Her approach is playful, and honest about the myriad of complex feelings she’s had to face. She draws nuanced pictures of her friends and family – who become characters (Nish, who always brings a packet of crisps when she visits, uni friend Chloe from Notts who sends invites to rural trips to strange places and uses laugh-cry emoji as punctuation), but still feel lovingly protected. When she feels angry at the similarity of her story to that of Charly Clive, also a comedic actor (Frances Brown performs with feminist theatre group Major Labia, some of whose voices appear in the play) who made a show about her brain tumour, it’s striking that she admits it. That was meant to be her story. But there’s always a balance struck – the hot anger at the irony turns to gratitude that Charly’s success helped her believe that she could overcome this most difficult period of her life. In the end she’s grateful. There’s always another side, and The Glad Game is a story about finding it.
It’d be strange to speak about Frances Brown’s command of the emotional demands of this story; not only are they ones she’s lived herself, but there is no character being constructed who lives them on stage instead of her. But she displays a compelling range of emotion and provides some great comedic moments, too – like a cancer patients gym class of three, Frances Brown and two pensioners.
It navigates playfulness and the inevitable fiery overwhelm of living with cancer. Anger at the unfairness of this happening when she’s worked so hard to get to where she is in her career. The pain and the struggle. It’s crisp and clear thanks to Phoebe’s honesty. But it’s not only a show about her and her cancer, it’s one which looks out and, in its most unexpected moments, asks what kind of mettle our political leadership is made of, having created harder economic times that require young people to exert themselves so much to have a chance to flourish.
Ultimately, The Glad Game is hopeful. It manages to tease out a message about the importance of doing what you love. Her love of acting is what keeps her holding onto something. It’s when she’s finally able to perform again (on the Olivier stage no less) that she finally feels herself. It’s a resonant homage to believing in a positive future in the bleakest times, and an homage to theatre too. A charming show that takes an incredibly difficult personal story and offers truthful human connection. She proves that she is indeed “Phoebe Fucking Brown.”
The Glad Games runs online at Nottingham Playhouse until 31th October, then tours to MAC Birmingham in November. More info here.