A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, directed by Bryony Kimmings; HOME, September 23 2016.
Emma is waiting at the reception of the oncology department. She is sure it is only a matter of time until she leaves. Doctors have spotted a tiny shadow on the lungs of Emma’s son, a little baby called Owen. But it is only a tiny shadow, Emma assures us, it will almost certainly turn out to be nothing.
It is something, however, as you suspect from every one of her facial expressions. Amanda Hadingue as Emma does a wonderful job as the mother who is in complete denial, sure that she has no place in what Susan Sontag defines as “the kingdom of the sick.” As with Owen, the doctors were not wrong about the diagnosis of the five other main characters of the play: Mark (Hal Fowler), a middle-aged man suffering from lung cancer and trying to make amends with his daughter; Laura (Golda Rosheuel) a forever-optimist with three to five years to live; Stephen (Gary Wood) a young man suffering from testicular cancer and trying to escape his mother’s (Amy Booth-Steel) control over his life; feminist and activist Gia (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) who shows how society’s perspective turns patients into unattractive bodies; and pregnant Shannon (Rose Shalloo) who has lost her mother to cancer, has suffered multiple and recurrent cancers herself, and who is dealing with the possibility that she will pass the disease on to her baby. As the play reminds us, moving into the kingdom of the sick does not reduce anyone into anonymity and the journey includes pain as well as absurdity, horror of the unknown as well as miracles of solidarity. And this is where A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer finds its upbeat rhythm.
This is after all a musical, about cancer. Actors and actresses on stage dance with sick bowls on their heads. As the writer/director Byrony Kimmings reminds us, musicals “dupe [the audience] into thinking they are being entertained whilst surreptitiously giving them huge dollops of truths on huge risky subjects … race, AIDS, poverty…” A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer indeed handles the subject masterfully. In the first half, I found my cheeks aching due to constant laughing and my head aching through efforts not to cry. Judging by the laughter that kept rising in the audience, I was not the only one. Never did I think it possible to make an audience laugh this much in a musical about cancer. And never did I think I would be swept so fast from laughter to tears. A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer does what it promises. It really works as a guide for the ones who suffered, are suffering or witnessing their loved ones going through cancer (or any other serious illness for that matter). From the very first moment of a prospective patient’s step into the hospital, it guides you through the journey for better or worse. It is a scary journey but there is, as the musical wonderfully points out, also absurdity in it. How one never seems to easily understand announcements over the hospital speakers, how it is almost impossible to find one’s way around hospital corridors and how the doors you hope to open, never do, and the ones you hope will never open, do, all aid the absurdity of the situation. But such is life. And the janitor of the hospital (Gareth Snook) keeps cleaning, forever calm and forever wise.
The first half of the play is heavy but light-hearted at the same time, punctuated with dances and songs about the ups and downs of the process. At one point all the patients sing to welcome Emma to the kingdom of the sick in a scene reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse. At another we find Laura singing “Miracle” as she dances in her glittery disco outfit, completely rejecting the doctor’s pessimism about her condition. Tim Parkinson’s melodies coupled with Kimmings’ lyrics create catchy but powerful songs. One by one five patients narrate their personal journeys through their songs. Agyei-Ampadu’s performance of the anger Gia feels for the constant “positive” attitude towards life in the narratives about illness and for the way people seemingly perform their lives in social media is among the most powerful performances of the musical. This is a play not about pessimism or forced optimism but about acceptance of the body with its flaws. The cancer cells, moving around on the stage in glittery and almost “cute” outfits help in portraying the illness not as a monstrous catastrophe, but rather a common experience. When the mood darkens as Emma moves toward the inevitable moment of knowledge, the play still manages to talk about cancer not as a tragedy but as a common event in life, one that requires solidarity and understanding.
In the second half however, the laughter of the audience turns into sobbing as the mood changes with Emma receiving the test results of her son. As she waits by the MRI, enduring the sounds of the machine, the audience is left with nothing more than the reality of the situation. As she screams and begs to God to take her instead of her son, the musical comes to accept the impossibility of narrating the rest of the story in an easy-going, cheerful manner. The dance, the music and the play itself stops, with the actors and actresses one by one taking off their characters’ outfits. This is the moment of reality. It is when a cancer patient comes onto the stage to share her hopes and dreams with the audience, and when the audience is invited to participate in the play by remembering and shouting out the names of their loved ones who have suffered from terminal diseases or are currently suffering, the room turns into a place to mourn, to remember and to support one another.
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is a powerful work that is not afraid to touch the core of its subject. It presents a guide to understand and accept the illness, or more importantly the sick body as it is.