Writer and Director Bryony Kimmings has never shied away from talking about difficult topics in her work. Fake it till you Make It was a revealing and sensitive show about coping with mental illnesses, sharing the stage with husband Tim who revealed he’d been taking anti-depressants six months into dating. Now back with her new show A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, her message is as strong as ever – we need to talk about difficult things, now. The musical follows a series of patients in various stages of their cancer journey, focusing mostly on the environment of sterile hospital corridors and waiting rooms.
After the enormous success of Complicte’s The Encounter (a play soon to be on broadway), there was a certain expectation for the staging to be slick but simple, which is exactly what was delivered from the company that commissioned and produced the musical. Certain accents of harshly lit EXIT signed, heavy swinging hospital doors and a few chairs, very smartly and appropriately dressed each scene. It’s simplicity was very nicely complimented by outrageously sparkly cancerous cell costumes which accompanied certain songs, alongside inflatable tumours that eventually overtook all the negative space on the stage.
The WAR on cancer, our battles, those who lost the fight – why is all this language so military inclined? I remember reading an article last year titled Do we need to end the ‘war’ on cancer?, that, in its most simple terms, explored our relationship with this way of speaking about cancer – deeming those who died, having lost the battle or those still struggling, fighters. Kimming slowly lifts what is engrained in our modern language. Giving these characters full and honest stories, cancer patients turn into humans with real fears and hopes about their bodies, reaching for what is left for them to claim ownership over again.
As one-third of us experience cancer at some point in our lives, A Pacifist’s Guide is a wake up call to anyone who refuses to meet in conversation with something that is so clearly relevant to all of us.
In one particular short scene, the audience is talked through the three types of cancer patient friends: the howlers, the ones who takes pity, and those who carry on as usual. Head tilts and bouquets being absurdly bashed against breasts; even though a quick and humourous scene, brilliantly captured the whole mood of the musical. Our ability to turn cancer into pink ribbons and fun runs, punnets of grapes and ‘get well soon’ flowers often masks the ugly, visceral, reality that lie within the walls of hospitals wards.
In true Kimmings fashion, this musical is unashamedly, and unapologetically full of honesty and heartache. When a diagnosis is met with laughter, she has truly captured the spirit of a nation that understands the absurdity of our inability to talk about our problems. As one-third of us experience cancer at some point in our lives, A Pacifist’s Guide is a wake up call to anyone who refuses to meet in conversation with something that is so clearly relevant to all of us.
I can’t say I was a big fan of the sing along, but the solidarity and community that this particular ending brought to the room was overwhelming – Bryony Kimmings has a wonderful way of making even the most stubborn of audience members relate (even if quietly) to the issues she wishes to shouts about, and provides a platform for those in solidarity to make the conversation even louder.