The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer. What a great name for a play about cancer. We pacifists do not fight or battle with cancer. Rather it fights with us. Our consultants cut us up and pour poisonous chemicals into us in the hope that it will go away. We do not die heroes on the battlefield, but in a hospital bed surrounded by carers.
Showing at the National Theatre, this is a musical following Emma’s journey through the cancer diagnostic system on her baby’s behalf. She meets other cancer patients in the waiting room and we hear their personal stories too – they are real-life stories researched by the playwright, Bryony Kimmings. There is the woman with ovarian cancer in denial about her terminal prognosis; the man who tells his workplace he’s merely got a bug and will be back at work soon; the guy who desperately rings his estranged daughter – will he ever get to talk to her? They’re all surrounded by brightly dressed singing and dancing cancer cells. From the walls and doors of the waiting room blow-up cancerous growths puff away.
The music – it’s loud! And to be honest, pretty mediocre. But leaving that aside, it’s a terrific idea and the production, a partnership between Complicite and the National Theatre, is bright, brash and rather good. There are some moments that ring true: the cleaner wielding his mop who knows all the patients; the staff member with the throw-away comment ‘Read this pamphlet’; the consultant giving a diagnosis in a muffled unintelligible voice as if from the bottom of the sea. And other moments that don’t: there’s a speech from a palliative care specialist who talks about the peaceful moment of death. Really? I have seen hard deaths. Who actually knows what goes on even if a person is in a coma? To me the phrase ‘She died peacefully in her sleep’ is as trite as ‘He lost his three-year battle with cancer’.
I found the first half engaging; I wanted to know what happened to the characters. But the second half was disjointed and I wasn’t sure what the message was. We do learn what happened but everyone’s fate is told second hand and quickly. Then the disembodied playwright speaks about her own experience with her child’s cancer. One of the real characters gets up on stage, recounts his story and nervously sings a song. Members of the cast shout out the name someone they want to remember and ask the audience to call out names. Mawkish!
The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is showing at the National Theatre until 29th November.