Review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer (Dorfman, National Theatre)

Bryony Kimmings collaborates with Complicite on a musical about the realities of cancer

There aren’t many musicals about cancer. But then there aren’t many musicals, or plays come to that, as original in both form and content as this one.

Writer and director Bryony Kimmings, writer Brian Lobel, composer Tom Parkinson and the collective might of the Complicite ensemble have come together to create something that is dazzling, dark and deeply moving. The clue to their endeavour is in the title; this is an attempt to debunk and demystify an illness that affects one in three people.

It opens with an announcement: the disembodied voice of Kimmings, best known up till now as a solo artist tackling difficult subjects such as STI and drunkeness, explains that she wanted to write a show about illness and death. But since no one comes to the theatre to be bored or depressed, she thought she’d turn it into a musical.

That uneasy balance between subject and expression is shown in the first scene in which we meet Emma (Amanda Hadingue) clutching her baby to her chest as she takes him to hospital for tests. With false courage, she comforts herself that nothing is wrong. Around her, the rush hour whirrs, with passers by singing jauntily of their good fortune that they’re not dying of cancer.

Once Emma reaches the hospital – an eternal waiting room conjured with brisk brilliance in Lucy Osborne‘s grey box set, surrounded by seven double doors and exit signs – she finds herself in the kingdom of the sick, patients dragging themselves around like zombies, who settle, after a natty dance routine (brilliant choreography by Lizzi Gee) to become individuals with specific cancer diagnoses.

From that point on, the first half is a dizzying mix of the real and the surreal. A group of patients line up to talk about the way others treat them, and the indignity of people adopting "the cancer face". But they are joined on stage by back flipping nurses, and a sequinned chorus line of bulbous cancer cells.

Sadness mixes with high comedy. A man who can barely breathe sings of longing for his daughter; a son locks himself into the loo to escape the ministrations of a possessive mother, but grabs her in a fierce hug when he emerges. Appropriately for a show that dedicates itself to the idea of truthfulness, and which is based on personal experience and true stories, strong emotion keeps breaking through. The songs are harmonic and catchy, the voices powerful. Laura (Golda Rosheuvel), terminally ill, brings the house down with a disco routine about a miracle cure; Shannon (Rose Shalloo) serenades sweetly on the theme of genetic cancers.

After a slightly unnecessary interval, the mood darkens. For five minutes, Emma just sits and reacts to the sound of an MRI machine (Lewis Gibson‘s sound design is superb). The stage fills with inflatable cancer cells, sinister and all-embracing. By the close, Kimmings has intervened to change the tone again, bringing the theatre together in an extraordinary act of communal remembrance. It is incredibly moving, and after scenes of silence or dialogue, it ends with a song.

Not everything about the show works. As someone who has had cancer, I worried about the absence of compassion on display: hospitals are kind as well as frightening places. Structurally, it’s a bit of a mess. On the other hand, I was impressed by the way the production manages to find physical embodiments of agony and incomprehension: the doctor’s diagnosis becomes a wall of distorted sound you are too panicked to hear; felled by grief Emma crawls around the room.

A Pacifist’s Guide has a rare bravery and a constant willingness to experiment with form to find meaning. It uses the power of theatre and the emotional directness of the musical to make its serious points about our reluctance to face illness.

In the end, you are both crying and humming the songs. Which is about as good a recommendation for a musical on any subject as I can think of.

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer runs in the Dorfman, National Theatre until 29 November.