Glass reviews A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer at the National Theatre, London

A MUSICAL about cancer is never going to be an easy watch and the latest offering from Complicite Theatre and performance artist, Bryony Kimmings is certainly bold and brash, yet still sensitive and profound. A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is an all singing, all dancing exploration into one of the biggest taboos – the C word. Bryony Kimmings does not shy away from addressing the terror and trauma of a disease which has probably affected everyone in the audience at some point in their life. This brave and colourful piece of theatre encourages people to talk more openly and honestly about cancer, in the hope that we can understand the emotions of those suffering in a more constructive way.


Amanda Hadingue and the company in A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer. Photo by Mark DouetAmanda Hadingue and the company in A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer. Photo by Mark Douet

The story follows single mum Emma and her journey in hospital where she waits for her baby son to undergo some worrying tests. The audience share in Emma’s destitute anxiety as little Owen is taken away from her and we meet a group of cancer patients who each tell their story. The defiant smoker, the pregnant teenager with a rare genetic disease, the woman searching for a miracle cancer cure and the recently diagnosed young man constantly followed around by his protective mother and trying to hide his cancer from his colleagues – every walk of life presents itself in this oncology ward.

Tom Parkinson’s songs are mostly very catchy and moving, yet all differ completely in musical style, which can feel slightly muddled at times. Heartbreak mixes with high comedy through expressive dance routines and aggressive song lyrics, all which perfectly encapsulate the anarchy of cancer which the production looks to debunk. Special mentions must go to Golda Rusheuvel’s moving portrayal of terminally ill Laura and Naana Agyei-Ampadu as the tough American who sarcastically ripostes her way through treatment. Agyei-Ampadu’s formidable vocals send shivers down the spine in a particularly emotive rendition of My Poor Body


Amy Booth-Steel in A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer. Photo by Mark DouetAmy Booth-Steel in A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer. Photo by Mark Douet


Then again, there is not one weak link in this stellar ensemble. Each actor brings an abundance of passion and raw emotion. We learn in the closing scenes of the play that every character is a direct representation of a genuine cancer patient as the actors mime to the voices of these real people who have so fearlessly and beautifully offered their stories to the piece. My only reservation is as the piece ends, we feel more like we are in a group therapy session, coerced into laying ourselves open, which didn’t seem to fit with the bolshiness and unapologetic nature of the rest of the production.


The company in A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer. Photo by Mark DouetThe company in A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer. Photo by Mark Douet


The set by Lucy Osborne and costumes by Christina Cunningham are grotesquely cartoon like, with cancer cells represented by cast members wearing colourful bobbly outfits and marching around the stage a la Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas. As the stage fills with bizarre inflatable cancer cells, there are definite echoes of the National’s recent production of A Pacifist’s Guide demonstrates the skillful way that design can perfectly underpin and complement the narrative of a production.

Kimmings directs with fearlessness and confidence and there is no doubt this piece of demystifying theatre will divide opinion. But shouldn’t theatre do just that? As Kimmings’ opening voiceover states, ‘no one comes to the theatre to be bored or depressed.’ She is true to her word as this breakthrough production will have you toe tapping, laughing and crying, sometimes all at the same time. Not to be missed.

By Heather Doughty
@nationaltheatre @bryonykimmings @complicite
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer runs at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre until November 29, 2016.
National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX
Box office tel: 020 7452 3000

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