A musical about cancer? It could all have gone so horribly wrong. And indeed it does, but not for the reasons you might think.
Co-writer, lyricist and narrator Bryony Kimmings‘ back catalogue is like a roadmap through early adulthood to approaching middle age: from sex, drink to depression and now this: the big one. Condensed and retooled from its origins at the National Theatre, A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer feels like the finished draft. Kimmings says this is the version she always wanted to make.
In detailing her journey through learning about cancer – its history, gender politics and mundane awfulness of it all – Kimmings explores the euphemisms, 'cancer-face' reactions and platitudinous language we produce when faced with something most of us are clearly unequipped to deal with.
Exploring these battle metaphors and what Kimmings calls the 'highly policed' discourse surrounding cancer, makes A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer part-prescription, part-manifesto. It’s funny, moving and very watchable.
But it’s also full of rage, defiance, vulnerability and moments that make the audience visibly flinch. "What’s it like to have no tits?" Kimmings asks Lara Veitch a 'super cancer girl' who had had the disease before she was born and has overcome six subsequent bouts due to an inherited medical predisposition.
Also on stage are a cast, including Kimmings’ sister Lottie Vallis, variously acting, narrating and wielding a variety of instruments. If it’s noticeable that there are no men on stage throughout, well, that feels apt. This is very much an exploration of cancer, femininity and feminism. When Veitch reveals that a male doctor advised her to have larger reconstructed breasts – what she calls 'misogyny wrapped up in medical advice' – it’s a very clear confluence of all three.
The first two-thirds of the show amount to a sort of mood-board one might imagine making a successful transition to an early evening Radio 4 slot. The melding of research, autobiography and music is a high wire act and though it is often funny, warm and authentic it feels close to tipping into theatrical smugging when some musical numbers kick in.
But it’s not cosy. The show is typically autobiographical and Kimmings isn’t afraid to document her Mum-ish obsessions when she becomes pregnant part-way through writing the original show, during which she pretty much drops Lara, with whom she had formed a close relationship. That blithe honesty typifies A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer, but it doesn’t do much to dispel the vague feeling that there’s something almost vampiric about the relationships she forms with some of the women she meets, represented variously through recordings and representations here and, in one case, posthumously.
But by her own admission what saves Kimmings’ show is her discovery of Lara. While Veitch is not a professional actress her naturalistic performance, the on-stage equivalent of a colour commentator, feels like an antidote to the production’s more affected elements. Veitch’s solo song – while tiny and isolated on the stage – is a defining moment of the production, but the music is a mixed bag that threatens to come off as trite, particularly when a Spice Girls-esque troupe arrive on stage singing agitpop about the patriarchy and cancer.
That makes what happens in the final third all the more powerful, as Kimmings undercuts what has gone before and is drawn right into the heart of the production. She finds herself helplessly waiting in a hospital side room as her young child is subjected by a thudding, pounding MRI scan, no more the distant observer with a ready quip, and almost out of her mind with worry.
It’s a tiny insight into what the other women in her production are going through. When she finds herself lost into the Kingdom of the Sick and comes across an ailing Veitch, shrouding herself in ivy and ready to concede defeat, it’s a startlingly affecting moment. It's as if by interrogating the language, culture and politics of cancer Kimmings has been drawn into the horrible realities of the disease – an author swallowed by her creation.
In these scenes and those that follow, A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer casts off its Art Council trappings and becomes something raw, relevant and vital. As Kimmings says, perhaps theatre is her church. To be surrounded by an audience united in tears is testament to the production’s uncomfortable, spiritual, power.
A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until 3 February then tours.