Updated: Saturday, 20th April 2019 @ 3:28pm

Review: Ball and Other Funny Stories About Cancer @ Contact Theatre – March 8

Review: Ball and Other Funny Stories About Cancer @ Contact Theatre – March 8

By Darren Heath

Ball and Other Funny Stories About Cancer is a delightfully irreverent comedy from Brian Lobel.

The words comedy and cancer are not often mentioned in the same sentence, but Lobel’s ability to suffuse such a mordant subject with humour is testament to its importance in the human spirit’s will to go on – even in circumstances where maybe you feel you can’t. 

The performance is stellar, naturally navigating around three separate plays – written in 2003, 2006 and 2009 – with an ease that makes them hardly feel separate at all, and coming out of the theatre you get the feeling that they are more effective taken as a whole, rather than individually.

There is constant audience interaction and participation throughout; for example, just after the start of the first piece, Lobel dims the lights and asks us to touch ourselves to check for lumps, and from the start you are aware that this isn’t going to be your typical theatrical experience.

He also passes around a bottle of Bucks Fizz and shares a shot of whisky with five people picked to go onstage, amongst other things.

The first of the plays is Ball, written in the aftermath of Lobel’s diagnosis with testicular cancer in 2001, and the subsequent experience of chemotherapy and various drugs he needed. 

This piece challenges stereotypes of how we are meant to feel about living with/through cancer – the old shtick that we are meant to learn from it, be revitalised about living, and go on to inspire people with our successes. 

Instead, Lobel admits to being a little confused about how to feel; to an overwhelming feeling that he gets the cancer without the inspiration; to the feeling that, now he has had cancer, his life should conform to the inspirational-cancer-victim-goes-on-to-triumph narrative. 

Isn’t the recovery only half the story – shouldn’t he now go on to win something? Of course, Lance Armstrong – diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996 – went on to win the Tour de France ‘a million times’, as Lobel never tires of telling us. 

The pressure Lobel feels to conform to this paradigm is a major source of the comedy, culminating in his competing in a hoopla hoop contest with a number of eight year old girls – of course, he wins, but only by default when one of the girls is disqualified.    

More comedy comes via more salacious means, such as what he was doing when he first noticed his bump – ‘my bump’, as he calls it – and a trip to the sperm bank to deposit ‘a million little Brians’.

Sexuality as a general theme is touched on in the first piece, but is more thoroughly indulged in the second – indeed, the second and third plays deal in a more direct way with how the cancer has affected his life in terms of sex and his relationship with his body. 

Other Funny Stories About Cancer, the second play in the trilogy, deals openly and honestly in regards to sexuality, as, so Lobel tells us regarding the first, it didn’t feel quite appropriate to a story about overcoming cancer  – although even in that the sexual imagery is strong. 

However, since this is now five years later, Lobel is free to discuss them in earnest, and stories of male and female lovers are elaborated with hilarity, and anchors around a wet dream story, which Lobel says he just happened to forget to mention previously.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Lobel is so honest in this play, both in his performance and his writing – which has to be said, is dense.

In fact the play hardly feels written at all, it feels fresh and fluid, and is full of spontaneous ad libs that come across as perfectly natural – we feel like we are one of his friends and it is difficult not to respond to Lobel’s warmth.

The final piece, Appreciation, is a riot from start to finish and carries a weighty message which is an ideal conclusion to the evening.

Lobel invites five audience members to feel his remaining testicle and write their impressions on a piece of card, which Lobel shows us whilst talking about our relationships with our bodies and how they change overtime. 

Traditional theatrical boundaries are broken down to a point of pure interaction that creates a dialogue between audience and performer which is about as intimate as you can get.

Performed at the Contact Theatre as part of their on-going flying solo festival, which celebrates solo performance and the ability of the solo performer to captivate and hold the audience, Lobel embodies all that is great about solo performance in the theatre.   

Overall this is a poignant experience dealt with deftly and with humour.

Although, of course, the irony is that whilst beating testicular cancer and going on to writing/performing a triumphant play does not quite reach the lofty heights of the Tour de France or exactly conform to the heroic sportsman conquering all narrative, it is quite inspirational.