Review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

It wasn’t the subject matter which put me off, it was the singing. I’ve never liked musicals, not even supposed comedy ones, the songs always seem contrived, the melody sadly lacking in favour of the words which only serve to further the story or punch line. But I was pleasantly surprised by the catchy tunes by Tom Parkinson in a Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer sung by the cast of Complicite and the beautiful voice of Naana Agyei-Ampadu along with a wonderful cast and a touching performance from Amanda Hadingue. In fact some of them are still going around in my head. The refrain ‘my poor, poor body’ that particularly resonated as it evoked the care we feel surge in ourselves when our body enters the ‘Kingdom of the Sick’ as defined by Susan Sontag.

The book, a Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer by Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel translated into a stage production by the wonderful Complicite (having seen nearly every production by Complicite, it was one of the reasons I was keen to see this) and it is a very heartfelt and honest production. Certainly a brave attempt to expose the many unspoken aspects of cancer that patients recognise as so familiar yet so hidden.

Having concluded that it’s unrealistic to expect real understanding of the experience from anyone who hasn’t gone through it themselves we were really impressed by Kimmings and Complicite’s choice of a colourfully musical approach to derailing those standard culturally, media and medical imposed mind sets, attitudes, words and phrases that keep cancer, above all other diseases, tightly boxed and categorised as THE most fearful but also THE most life-affirming for those who survive it.

Way too beautiful cancer cells glitter and sparkle as they stalk the players around the stage, even winching cutely when brushed aside ( great costumes by Christina Cunningham). We hear the mantras and affirmations, the pleas to gods of every denomination, the silent screams and lack of control over a cancer patient’s destiny, the longing for the normality and safety of home and the ultimate the call to fuck cancer.

Cancer is not a subject many people sing and dance about, yet one in 3 of us in the UK will experience it at some point in our lives, or know someone who has cancer. Having worked on the primary prevention aspect of cancer, particularly breast cancer for the past 20 years, it is a subject I am not shy of talking or hearing about.

A Pacifists Guide explores in a novel way the medicalisation of cancer, the hospital visits, the endless shuffling from test to test, the treatments, the hair loss and pain, and the reactions of others to your diagnoses, including the mixed emotions it triggers. We are allowed an insight into the sometimes unhelpful responses from friends and relatives ranging from the ‘cancer face’, to their use of your tragedy as a spring board for their emotions. There is no escape from the stage set hospital where all exits are blocked by the unchecked growth of the cancer cells filling every exit.

There were several laugh out loud moments (for me anyway) and aggressive sorrow when the cast flagellated themselves with bunches of flowers. The lively discos scene was fun and as one expects from Complicite, innovative.

For me one thing that was missing was the overriding question, why me? The piece touched on it but only lightly. Patient blame was illustrated by the smoking man, who gets castigated for giving himself cancer through smoking, yet the reveal is that it could have been down to a number of things he was exposed to in his life such as the asbestos, or where he worked and lived. Despite all the pamphlets thrust into the patients’ hands, cancer is a multifactorial disease, although the UK cancer establishment sees fit to blame the patient by focussing on their lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, alcohol and smoking) to the exclusion of all other confounding risk factors such as environmental and occupational risk factors for the disease which may not be so apparent or easy to blame on the patient.

The piece questions the language used around cancer, is it not strange that survivors are celebrated for winning their ‘ battle’ with cancer implying that they are better, stronger, superior in biological ‘warfare’ than those who succumb, the arrogant assumption of human power over nature. Media routinely use the ‘ battle’ word as in describing cancer as a ‘battle’ between the patient and a cellular malfunction leading to malignant tumour growth. Originating among surgical teams on C19th battlefields, its persistent use in the C21st century, among the warlike terminology used to define the cancer experience, also persists in fuelling fear through the power of language in associating cancer with images of war.

For me, the piece seemed to lose energy towards the end. Invitations to the audience to shout out the names of loved ones who have lived and died from cancer felt like the opening of wounds for which there was no resolution at the end of the play, too much like workshopping. Maybe it was an exercise to highlight the fact that the sorrow is always just under the surface. Inviting a cancer patient on stage to talk about their diagnoses felt like the night was taken in a different direction. But overall it a thoroughly thought provoking night. The play is at the National Theatre until the end of November and then on tour.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer.

Book by Bryony Kimmings and Brain Lobel. Production by Judith Dimant  and Complicite, directed by Bryony  Kimmings. Music by Tom Parkinson.