Of all the topics musicals haven’t yet covered, the deep, dark and controversial issue of cancer is probably near the bottom of the list. But if you’re thinking A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer is going to be a Hallmark weepfest, think again.
One doesn’t usually associate Complicite’s work with musicals. It’s no wonder then that A Pacifist’s Guide is surprising in that it actually follows the genre pretty well, at least in its first act. The show opens with a voiceover from director Bryony Kimmings, who introduces us to the musical’s plot: a day in the life of ‘protagonist’ Emma (Amanda Hadingue). Emma is the mother of an infant, and has to go to the oncology department due to a suspected malignant growth in her son’s body. After making our way through a flustered and high energy opening number of the company battling inner London traffic, we arrive at a grey, bare hospital, where Emma’s son is quickly whisked away by doctors to perform tests on throughout the day. Left in the waiting room, Emma’s fears that her son may be infected seep into the world around her, giving life to colourful, oversized, deceptively joyous cancer cells who welcome her to the ‘Kingdom of the Sick’, an euphemism for the despair and multitude of fears that arise from illness.
What follows is Emma (metaphorically) falling into a warped rabbit hole, as she meets the various other patients in the hospital, each suffering from various forms of cancer and learns their stories. There’s radical black American feminist Gia (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), chainsmoking oxygen tank reliant Mark (Hal Fowler), workaholic yuppie Stephen (Gary Wood) who can’t get his overprotective mum off his back (Amy Booth-Steel), ex-singer Laura (Golda Rosheuvel), whose terminal ovarian cancer bloats her stomach and for whom treatment isn’t working, and pregnant Shannon (Rose Shalloo), who is afraid that her genetic sarcoma may be passed down to her unborn child. Each patient is introduced with their own theme song, ranging from ballad ‘Castaway’ (Stephen) to the discotheque inspired ‘Miracle’ (Laura), and just about all of them are powerful, show-stopping numbers that show off composer Tom Parkinson’s skilled sense of variety and Lizzi Gee’s visually delightful and sharp choreography.
Much of the first act of A Pacifist’s Guide attempts to showcase dealing with cancer in all its forms – sometimes with humour, sometimes with delusion, sometimes with anger, and sometimes with a fistful of tears. There’s a lot going on, and one can’t help but marvel at how genuinely upfront Complicite has decided to tackle such a contentious issue head-on, revealing the pretensions of friends, importance of family and the utter hopelessness that comes with a diagnosis. For all the fun it seems to have with the song and dance numbers, Complicite remains sensitive about the topic, and that comes out in every patient’s story by paralleling their internal thoughts with reality. Each patient’s lines are sincere and fiercely current, touching on a number of topics, from political rants to familial relationships to online correspondence, and will almost certainly strike a chord with anyone in the audience, whether as a laugh or as relatable.
Stories about cancer rarely end happily, and A Pacifist’s Guide is no different, with the second act delving into much more serious material as Emma’s narrative develops. Emma’s son is confirmed to have cancer, and in her confusion and fury, she engages in a too shocking to be funny satanic ritual with the contents of her handbag in an attempt to ask the higher powers to take her instead of her son. It’s a moment that though comic, seems all too real, that in our desperation for a solution, we’re willing to try anything. Emma is a deeply sympathetic character, and we empathize with the horror and guilt of inadequacy she goes through as the environment around her warps with giant inflatable cancer cells burst from the walls and doors, and the sounds of the MRI being performed on her son are raised to a fever pitch and spliced with the noise of rushing trains and the blaring horns of a truck.
And there we end the main narrative, and the show delivers the true twist – all of these characters are based on real people Complicite interviewed in the process of devising the show, and reveals the current fates of each of them. Emma then speaks directly to Bryony’s voiceover, wondering how one should proceed with the show now that it has reached a slightly awkward, inconclusive point. We won’t spoil it for you, but by the time you leave the theatre, chances are you’ll be left in tears, in what I personally found was one of the more affecting moments I’ve experienced in theatre this year, and proof of the power of theatre to bring out emotions you never expected it to.
A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer isn’t the most straightforward musical, nor does it make itself out to be one. Instead, it aims to deliver a strong social message of presenting illness, or specifically cancer, and how one might handle it. Writers Kimmings and Brian Lobel offer no solutions, but rather, a look at and documentation of real people who’ve stared it in the eye. Though short, clocking in at just under 2 hours (excluding the intermission), it manages to entertain throughout and surprise when you least expect it, with an extremely talented cast and high production value. A Pacifist’s Guide is almost certainly one of the most original and fresh pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year, expertly weaving harsh reality and carnival-esque fun into an important, sensitive, moving performance that leaves a lasting impact.
A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer plays at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre, London till 29 November. Tickets available here