A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer at the National Theatre
Covering a day in the life of Emma, whose baby is being tested for cancer, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer seeks to peak under the dirty carpet where all the unmentionable topics surrounding sickness have been swept. In doing so director and writer Bryony Kimmings, co-writer Brian Lobel and composer Tom Parkinson have created a hospital-bound cross between Dante’s journey through hell and Josef K’s travels in the bureaucracy of The Trial, where patients are stalked by life-sized tumours reminiscent of malicious Teletubbies. That is until the musical morphs into something far stranger.
For much of its running time the story doesn’t really belong to Emma (Amanda Hadingue, who is particularly affecting in the second act) but to those who she encounters in the various waiting rooms and wards she is confined to. Each gets a song in which to shine, a nugget of real experience wrapped in one of Parkinson’s melodies. There is the wheezing Mark (Hal Fowler), who shuffles like a cowboy in Lonesome; the painfully young Shannon (Rose Shalloo) who begs for Peace of Mind; and Stephen (a touching Gary Wood), struggling to hide the extent of his illness from those who surround him in Castaway. The standouts, however, are Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s Gia and Golda Rosheuvel’s Laura: the former belts her way through the chemo-countrified-soul of My Poor Body, while the latter breaks hearts as she boogies in Miracle.
Much of this approach, however, is ditched in the second act, a conceptually different beast entirely. While the first half is a fairly straightforward musical, subject matter excluded, what Kimmings and co produce in the final 30 minutes is extraordinary. Instead of couching the topic in the tropes of genre, Kimmings utilises a cacophonous selection of sound design, a monstrously expanding set and real life testimony, as well as one final song (the simple, haunting Silly Girl), to forge an astonishing – if flawed – piece of performance art.
Some may balk at the naked emotion on display, or view the ending as a reversal of the anarchic rejection of banal positivity in the first act. However, that would involve ignoring what Kimmings is trying to create with A Pacifist’s Guide: a frank discussion of the realities of illness, one that can hopefully provoke a more honest discourse in the lives of those in attendance.
Photos: Mark Douet
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is at the National Theatre from 14th October until 29th November 2016, for further information or to book a visit here.