A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

Theatre, Musicals
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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A new musical about cancer from performance artist Bryony Kimmings

INTERVIEW: 'It's not the first musical about cancer. But I think it might be the first good musical about cancer'.

This angry, funny, uneven and eventually devastating musical about cancer from Complicte and performance artist Bryony Kimmings (co-written with Brian Lobel and Tom Parkinson) has as moving a last 15 minutes as you can imagine. 

Before that, it's mixed. For its first half, ’A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ is a kind of Kafka-esque cabaret musical that follows lead character Emma’s indoctrination into a sort of existential hospital oncology department. Emma (Amanda Hadingue) is here because her infant son has been referred for tests, something she shoves to the back of her mind as he’s taken away by doctors and she meets the raging, absurd, frail, irritable denizens of the ward.

It’s pretty much a series of ‘turns’, with Emma looking on as each patient shares their story through song, from a lung cancer-riddled chain-smoker who breaks into a keening country ballad, to a tough, in-denial mum who launches into a sizzling disco number as she professes her will to fight to the end, long after it appears futile. 

The songs, though stylistically all over the shop, are strong, and there’s some particularly formidable lung power from Naana Agyei-Ampadu and Golda Rosheuvel. The problem is that it doesn’t all hang together: Emma should be the glue that binds the musical together, but instead she’s a detached observer who we barely learn a thing about. Kimmings’s numerous acclaimed solo shows are all intensely autobiographical; there is a her-shaped void at the heart of ‘A Pacifist’s Guide…’, which is never really redressed, even if it is partially filled by an actual voiceover from Kimmings, who eventually links Emma’s story to her own.

It’s only late on – ironically when the songs have mostly stopped – that 'A Pacifist's Guide…' really finds its feet, as Kimmings emerges as a personality, the cast start miming verbatim to the darkly comic recordings of the real-life cancer patients they were based upon, one of the patients comes up on stage to read a few words about herself, and the audience is invited to say the names of people they know who died of cancer. If it was glossier it might be mawkish, but it’s here that Kimmings and Lobel’s DIY roots show through – it feels like a healing, empowering art project that really has something to say, confronting the prosaic, oft-concealed reality of life with cancer head-on. 

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