Review: ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ @ HOME – a creative take on how we look at terminal illness

Cancer, or the C word as some would rather call it, is something of a taboo.

It’s an illness that a third of us will have to deal with in our lifetime, and yet it’s still a topic which is difficult to have a conversation about.

Too often the rhetoric we employ to comfort or deal with this disease fall into the tired clichés of ‘just stay positive’, ‘just keep smiling’ and ‘tell me what I can do to help’.

It’s this rhetoric that writer and director Bryony Kimmings looks to tackle in her play A Pacifist’s Guide To The War on Cancer.

She says: “If this musical does one thing, it will be to crack open the metaphors and language we use around the disease and see what really lies beneath. With glitter.”

Without doubt, writing an up-beat, Rodgers and Hammerstein style musical is a novel approach to challenging society’s conventional response to cancer treatment.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is a funny, provocative and refreshing piece of drama that left some of the audience in tears by the time the curtain came down.

The story follows Emma, as she journeys through a hospital ward, Kimmings’ self titled, ‘Kingdom of the Sick’, as she nervously waits for her new born baby to be scanned for a possible cancer diagnosis.

WHAT LIES BENEATH: Cancer is a dark illness which writer & director Bryony Kimmings attempts to explore ‘with glitter’

A lot of the show’s success can be attributed to what Complicite, the production company, brought to the script.

Complicite are known for stylised performances and simple staging; here a few chairs and some simple costume changes are the devices used to take the audience from one ward of the hospital to the next instantaneously.

The cancer cells themselves also play a role, dressed as glittery clown like characters who act as an uncomfortably funny presence on stage, stalking patients in a twisted game of grandmother’s footsteps, physically representing the looming dread that a diagnosis causes.

But it’s the songs that really steal the show and drive home Kimmings’ call to update our approach to cancer.

Even Cunts Get Cancer is a hilariously crude jab at how cancer patients are immediately branded as saints as soon as they become diagnosed.

Meanwhile, My Poor Body, which features a fantastic vocal performance from Naana Agyei-Ampadu, places crushing lyrics about the pain of therapy on top of a catchy pop tune to drive the listener to empathise with the characters’ experiences without the need for melancholia.

The second act moves from musical to political soap-boxing, as the director intervenes in her own play to speak to her actors and give a voice to the real cancer patients who she took inspiration from.

In places, especially closer to the end, this approach can be a little on the nose.

At the same time, there is no chance that the message is lost, and no doubt that the end result is moving and thought provoking in equal measure.

Through A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, Kimmings peels away combative metaphors surrounding cancer to get to the heart of how it actually affects its victims and their loved ones.

It tells those people that it’s ok to not always be positive, and that it’s alright to be vulnerable when you need to be.

Friends are reminded that it isn’t their place to tell someone how to deal with their cancer, but to be supportive without being patronising.

The song Fuck This does a lot to sum up what A Pacifist’s Guide to Cancer is.

It’s an impassioned response to how society collectively misunderstands cancer, the way it works and the best course of action to face it.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer certainly does make a song and dance about this issue, but it does this without ever feeling misguided – and the end result is a profound and memorable theatrical experience. 

The show plays for one final time in Manchester this evening at HOME before moving south to Exeter and then London.

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