The title itself lets you know that this show will be hard to pin down. It isn’t snappy, or catchy. I’ll bet marketing had a melt down trying to work out how to promote this one. Let’s face it, a performance about cancer was always going to be difficult sell. And a musical about cancer is an even more confusing concept. Because, as we learn throughout the evening, cancer isn’t cuddly or fluffy; it isn’t inspiring; it is not something anyone would choose. It is brutal and unforgiving and it never goes away.
There are many guides to cancer, with films and books on how to survive it, how to ‘stay ‘lovely and beautiful during cancer’. But this is something different. It is different in the guidance it gives and the way it gives it; it is different to any theatrical production you have ever imagined.
Performance artist Bryony Kimmings is the glue that holds it all together. She kicks off the action by explaining who she is and how she came to write the production following a meeting with a theatrical producer who, it transpired, had breast cancer. And so Bryony read book after book, particularly The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Susan Sontag’s ‘Illness as a Metaphor‘ which introduces us to the concept of the Kingdom of the Sick and the Kingdom of the Well. She interviewed and recorded the voices of many women who had cancer to find out what they thought and felt and how they wanted to be treated. She also met Lara, who appears as herself on stage, and who because she has Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS), has had several different types of cancer. They form a close friendship, but while Bryony becomes pregnant, Lara is diagnosed with bone cancer, and retreats into the Kingdom of the Sick. Only when Bryony’s son falls desperately ill does Bryony enter that Kingdom seeking out Lara, who is in the same hospital. Indeed, the scene following the diagnosis of Bryony’s son is visceral in its raw pain, and so desperately true in the isolation, the agony, the plea bargaining, the helplessness of any parent who realises how helpless they are to help their child. Yet with the auditorium turned into one enormous MRI by sound that goes on and on, an experience normally so solitary becomes a shared experience.
So, not a comedy then! But as with the life, the dark is made darker by the lighter elements – the catchy songs about the history of cancer, the flashes of humour, the dancing and the costumes. We are given practical guidance on how to deal with cancer as a patient and as a friend of someone who has cancer. In each town, someone with cancer comes on to the stage to share their experience, and the audience is asked to share the names of those whom they have loved and have lost. (Complicité also provide an online resource, which is well worth a look.) The lighting and the set all have the flexibility and imagination to reflect and complement the action.
For anyone who has had cancer, even when the ‘all clear’ is given, their life is never the same, they will never ‘get over’ how their body has betrayed them. Similarly, anyone who sees this performance will be changed by it, something which all theatre should aspire to but which is rarely achieved in such a remarkable and unique way.
Reviewer: Johanna Roberts
Reviewed: 31st January 2018
North West End Rating: ★★★★★