I went to a musical… about cancer. A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer was given the song and dance treatment by Complicite Associates and the National Theatre in the UK where has played to packed audiences in Manchester, Exeter and London.
An anguished mother is trapped in an oncology waiting room as her baby undergoes tests. Patients come and go but, unable to leave, the mother moves from denial to bewilderment, despair and acceptance.
A bundle of tumour cells appears like a rubber toy to give a quick teach-in on how cancers grow; later, inflatable tumours crowd the stage.
This may not sound like entertainment but A Pacifist’s Guide has laughter and defiance, good songs, fantastic dancing as well as very dark moments. None darker than when mother and audience sit for fully two minutes while we are all stunned by the sound of an MRI scan at full volume.
The script by Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobol reflects the Susan Sontag assessment of illness as metaphor where everyone “holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick”. Both authors were committed to avoiding a ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ ending.
Lobel has been writing about cancer ever since he was cured of testicular cancer. “Most people are focused on going ‘back to normal’ and I realised that there is no normal. I was never normal to begin with but I certainly did not go back to being normal.”
Kimmings was interested in why cancer has so many warlike metaphors. ”Cancer seems to have a battle because it is much more terrifying to think that your body turns against you and that you have no control over it.” She sees A Pacifist’s Guide as a plea for greater honesty and understanding. “A common misconception is that it is going to be dramatic. Actually it is a very slow and boring and lonely and all over the place.”
The run of this high octane show is over but Complicite and the National Theatre are discussing if it will continue in some form. It would be good if the show could evolve so that patient outcomes are less detached from treatment options. Currently, its most powerful song presents cancer simply as fate:
“Fingers crossed; make a wish;
“What gruesome game of chance is this?”
It would also have been good to explore the relationship between health professionals and patients and the ability of patients and advocates to bring about change.
My overall feeling however was very positive. Cancer should be on the stage. Let’s keep making a song and dance about it.
Online you can watch authors and cancer patients answering questions such as What is the worst cancer-related advice you’ve ever heard? Start at the Complicite YouTube site
There is also linked site where you can join in a discussion of the issues.