The Scene

A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer: Playhouse, Liverpool

A maverick musical with a message, Gary Dougherty reports on a night of songs, laughs and anarchic performance.

I don’t usually do theatre, and I definitely don’t do musical theatre, so exactly why A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer piqued my interest when it popped up on a local ‘What’s On’ guide on Facebook is still a mystery.

But there’s something remarkably intriguing about a musical with cancer as its central theme. It should be a terrible idea; it isn’t. You would think it’d be earnest and dour; instead it’s irreverent and funny. Its many things and something you should go and see.

Unlike its staging at the National Theatre, this is a stripped back production; gone are the elaborate costumes and in their place we have a minimalist set and very few performers (and one of those is from the audience, but more on that later).

Bryony Kimmings, who conceived and co-wrote the play, opens as the narrator and proceeds to regale us with the story of how it came to be. And true to form, a slightly bonkers idea was born in a slightly bonkers situation.

In the opening scene we see Bryony (played by her sister) pitching ideas to a germaphobic production manager and it is during this session that Bryony discovers Judith (the production manager) is sick. Not just ‘ordinary’ sick, full-on, third round of chemo, breast cancer sick!

But it’s OK because Judith is a fighter. Confronted by this revelation of Judith‘s hitherto unknown pugilistic skills, Bryony proceeds to ask “What are you going to do, punch yourself in the tits?” It is in this moment that we see the genesis of the play. How does a pacifist deal with the combative language and attitude to cancer? What follows is a series of songs, quotes, fun facts and general anarchy that leads to the introduction of Lara.

After much fanfare we half expect Lara to arrive from the heavens on a cloud, but in her own unique hippy style, Lara strolls in from the wings and casually says “Hi”. Lara is undoubtedly the star of the show and a real life cancer sufferer. Born with the rare genetic disorder, “Li-Fraumeni Syndrome“, she has had multiple cancers and is a frequent resident in the Kingdom of the Sick. Whilst there she has met with misogyny, aggressive friendship, pain and despair. But she also meets Bryony.

👉Click here for our interview with Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders 👈

Like most of us, Bryony will have visited the Kingdom of the Sick as a tourist. A short visit to Chickenpox or Flu (either the real or man variety), but on this occasion Bryony is an anthropologist, studying those who inhabit the realm on a longer term basis. It is through this study that we are enlightened on how cancer really affects people and as the audience we start to question our attitudes. But hold on, it’s getting all serious again; time for a mad song, some on-stage costume changes and reinstatement of anarchic paper throwing.

It is at this point that we find out about Bryony‘s longer and more personal visit to the Kingdom of the Sick. Not as a patient, but as a mother. The anguish of a parent with a sick child is portrayed with aplomb through the use of noise, light and muffled voices. As you long for the noise to stop you get a glimpse of the despair of those who make frequent visits to the Kingdom of the Sick and are able to make a more personal connection. It is during this visit that we again find Lara, who once again is ‘battling’ cancer.

Through their friendship Lara and Bryony are able to leave the kingdom and return to our normal world and with them they bring a song of friendship. This is performed by, self-confessed ‘non-singer’ Lara.

It is in these final stages that the performance takes a different turn. Bryony and Lara come to the edge of the stage and break down the barrier between performers and audience, just as they have broken down the barrier between the Kingdoms of the Sick and the Well.

Clare (from Wigan) is invited on stage and tells us of her diagnosis with breast cancer. Her hope comes not from battles or bravery, but from finding  something to focus on, something to remind her that she is human. The audience are then invited to remember those they have lost through cancer. In the intimate setting of the Liverpool Playhouse this seemed normal and fitting. Many a tear was shed as names were called out from around the room.

Before going seeing A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer I would have described Lara as brave, gutsy or a fighter. Instead I will describe her as funny, engaging and determined.  Above all I will remember that she, along with all those who have cancer are first and foremost people. They are not defined by their disease, they are not engaged in a war, and they have the right to be sad, angry or desperate.

Bryony and the others involved deserve applause for this bold, thought provoking, funny and slightly mad production.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer runs at The Liverpool Playhouse until 3rd February with tickets still available.

Image from the Liverpool Playhouse website by Mark Douet.

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