Review: A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer, National Theatre


“Fingers crossed
Make a wish
What gruesome game of chance is this?
Cross your chest
Count 1 in 3
And pray it doesn’t grow in me”

A musical about cancer? As unlikely as it might seem, A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer isn’t even the first one that I’ve seen. That dubious honour goes to Happy Ending, one of the most misjudged shows I saw last year, but fortunately this Complicite and National Theatre co-production in association with HOME Manchester rejoices in a much stronger pedigree, a collaboration between performance artist Bryony Kimmings (book and lyrics), Brian Lobel (book) and Tom Parkinson (music).

A Pacifist’s Guide… posits itself as “an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of ordinary life and death” and this it does by collating varying stories of people diagnosed with cancer into a single hospital waiting room, watched over by Emma, a single mother waiting for some tests or suspected bone cancer to be conducted on her baby son. And over the course of a long night, we hear their tales of living with the disease, the trials of having to deal with other people’s reactions to it, the wells of emotion it taps into.

In that respect, musical theatre as a storytelling form seems better suited than one might think and as someone who in her own words is “not a huge fan of most musicals”, Kimmings, along with Lobel and Parkinson, give us a fascinating exploration of what it can achieve. On receiving a terminal diagnosis, one patient retreats into a 70s funk fantasy number; in a moment of real black comedy, a cancerous mass sings about how it metastasises. There’s a real understanding of the power of music too, from a heartfelt ballad with simple but beautiful harmonies to the whoomph of an epic chorus complete with dance routine to close your first act.

It’s a challenging watch, and rightfully so. As a voice inserted into the narrative, Kimmings explains how she wants to encourage a greater openness in society about discussing illness and death and as we move into the second half, more of her typical approach bleeds into the work. The source of these stories manifests itself and all our relationships – as writer, as company members, as the audience – to cancer are brought to the forefront in a tender, but still searching manner.

Lucy Osborne’s design perfectly evokes institutional greyness, with its multiple doors marked exit hiding any number of unpleasant surprises; Marc Tritschler’s musical direction copes expertly with the wide range of influences that permeate Parkinson’s score; and in a committed cast that feels like a truly supportive ensemble, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Gary Wood, and particularly Golda Rosheuvel stand out. “How do we talk about illness and death more?” – you could do a hell of a lot worse than seeing this show and really listening to what it has to say.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Mark Douet
Booking until 29th November

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