A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, National Theatre - Review

© Photo: Mark Douet

Allegedly, when Native American medicine men talk to the sick, they usually ask three questions: When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story? Whether she was conscious of this notion or not, theatremaker Bryony Kimmings has adopted this practise for her latest show, to address and throw light on one of the most pernicious of diseases: cancer.

On the national scene as an independent theatremaker, Kimmings is a respected practitioner and has a devoted following. She creates shows that within certain parameters defy classification, but always have at their core a personal connection to her life. Under the aegis of the National Theatre's incumbent artistic director Rufus Norris, having Kimmings there represents the NT's evolution in showcasing the sort of theatre outside South Bank that's making an impact on the rest of Britain. It's certainly a sea change at the institute, as Kimmings' body of work is very different from what's normally performed at the NT. By writing/directing a musical, one would think that this was perhaps a conventional, mainstream show. However, if you excuse the pun, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer still very much has her DNA running through it.

The focal point of the show is Emma Kenworthy (Amanda Hadingue) who has taken her baby to the hospital for various tests. There she meets people from all works of life who are also undergoing oncological tests. As we get to meet the characters – including Laura (Golda Rosheuvel) and Gia (Naana Agyei-Ampaadu) a self-confessed "radical feminist geek, but does this black life matter?" – the show slowly but surely introduces surreal elements into proceedings so that Emma sees anthropomorphic manifestions of cancer who explain/sing about their nature. As the show progresses, cancer's 'appearence' in the show resembles something closer to its true nature – imposing, evergrowing, unstoppable, encrouching on everyone and everything...

If this sounds either too bizarre or abstract, then the deafening MRI machine that punctuates the second half of A Pacifist’s Guide... is a stark reminder of the reality that underpins the show, something that cannot be bargained with or made light of.

I can imagine the ending of the show being quite divisive, having the Marmite factor: you'll either love it or hate it. Public displays of emotions, particularly those tinged with grief can to the British mindset be très embarrassant and smack of being disingenuous. Playing devil's advocate, anyone who has direct experience of cancer or known peope who have may find the gravitas and the ambivalence of the feelings expressed in Shadowlands or Mick Gordon's On Death a more suitable conduit for exploring this subject. However Kimmings has provided within  A Pacifist’s Guide... a safe framework for those who find  the merest mention of sickness and death an insurmountable topic to approach. The theme of the musical stemmed from Kimmings' own experiences with her baby son being very ill and all that that entails. Rather than comment about cancer in hushed tones and consternation, her show aims to expose it for what it is: an aggressive form of 'life' that indiscriminately takes its toll on the emotional and physical well-being of people.

At the end  of the day, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is still very much a Kimmings show. Its budget maybe larger, the venue more prestigious, but at its core is a show that doesn't so much throw a light on "the big 'C'" as reiterates the importance of those still will us and those who have sadly been taken by this cruel disease.  

© Michael Davis 2016

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer runs at the National Theatre until 29th November 2016



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