It’s over-expansive and yet at its most expansive it’s simultaneously at its best. Disregard (or don’t) the critics who call the ending effusive mush or ’emotional blackmail’. The ending is the best part; it’s the only good part, in fact.
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, now at the Dorfman, is a Serious Play and an Ethical Play. Serious doesn’t mean not-campy not-perky, but that its objective is a serious one. A political one. Spearheader Bryony Kimmings, who did the lyrics, part of the book and directed, is a multi-year Ed Fringe success who’s known for getting onstage herself in hour-long chunks and investigating, with nifty formally-inventive ways, a burning social issue, though it’s hard to say if cancer is really a Burning Social Issue. DO NOT GET ME WRONG: I say this because I see a burning social issue as something that exists in a hot spring of dissent, not in a place of near univocal agreement. What do people disagree on vis-à-vis cancer? Giving it special funding: yeah, that’s an issue, but too dry. Still, there is the question of how to handle the thing itself and those who have it. Anger simmers in the play and programme over self-interested idiots who use a fellow human’s suffering as a ‘springboard’ for their own emotions, which is beyond dickish, however it’s not a force to take arms against in a play. Of course people can react domineeringly, selfishly, callously to learning of a loved one’s diagnosis; that’s because people are all of those adjectives and often. The force, then—which is making me sound Manichean-type reductive, as in adhering to the idea that a play needs an evil army to clash against—has to intimidate. There’s got to be conflict, and so Pacifist‘s conflict is against nature itself. Interestingly (but sadly), this clash sheers off the play’s political sitng, because the battle of human vs. nature is too primal and not social science-y enough to send it into the political sphere; obviously Foucault and ‘personal is political’ and so on, but the point is that this matter and antimatter collision isn’t of the kind to stir people to action. The most politically it will do is make us kinder and not condescending-kind to sufferers, which is GREAT, although then again the Dorfman can only invite so many audience.
But the musical? What about the musical? I will get to it. Be patient!
The other thing Pacifist is is an Ethical Play. The best political Ed Fringe people research and talk, deeply and compassionately, with the people affect but their topic. They don’t mess around in this domain. Bryony Kimmings set her sights on cancer because her producer, Judith Kimmings, was going through it, which gives the work an automatic foundational capital-T Truthfulness to it without it even starting. They copy an e-mail exchange into the programme concerning their research plan in 2014 that invites you to imagine the two years of difficult chats undergone with real sufferers AND THEN there’s the revelation at the play’s end where the actors playing their characters mouth the words of their real-life inspirations.
And yet, and yet, and yet it’s not good. I had to the mention the ethics of it because there’s a dirtiness in naming something with noble intentions bad. It’s not like a champagne socialist play where nothing’s ever at stake; something feels like it’s at stake here. Nevertheless, again, it’s not good.
Plot: Emma (Amanda Hadingue) takes her baby to the hospital for some tests. She’s full of anxiety until she learns that her baby has cancer, which throws her into inconceivable anguish. The story ends and we get fourth wall action. That’s it. The plot is as sparse as I just described it.
Cannily, Kimmings and co-writer Brian Lobel make the audience-surrogate a loved one of a sufferer and not a sufferer themselves. Most of the audience will be of that class, and the fact that it’s a baby suffering means that their expression of their suffering is essentially unknowable to us but real nonetheless—Sidebar: this description feels an appalling clinical way of describing the protagonist but at least clinical makes sense in this context. Hadingue is naturally sympathetic, though the real characterisations are given to the hospital’s other sufferers who become the chorus and characters in and of themselves: they sing, they dance in a jumble of noise and pastiche.
It’s all free.
It’s all free because the piece doesn’t want to project its own methods of facing illness onto anyone. This dictate goes hand in hand with Pacifist‘s Ethical Play status: it invites diversity of opinion, yet that is its failing, which is not an Alt-Right cri de coeur saying inclusiveness is evil, but a registration of dismay that the work doesn’t say much. Cancer is horrible. Sufferers need better support. It’s hard to pluck anything new out of the freewheeling narrative. On formal terms there ain’t much new going on either: it’s not funny, it’s not mordant and it’s not heartening. Tom Parkinson’s score has some modal stuff, some polyrhythm, but nothing sticks out as incredible, nothing except ‘My Poor Body’ which remains catchy as any great earworm. There are globulely, macabre abstractions of cancer from set designer Lucy Osborne and costume designer Lucy Cunningham, though that’s all they are: bulging abstractions which intrude on the stage.
Wild and not wild enough, the musical part of the show is an exercise in care. Then the pretence is dropped in a grand tonal change as mentioned earlier, where recordings of real sufferers are mimed by the actors. An actual sufferer (or in my night’s case a loved one of one) comes to the stage to read a personal note of what they’d like to happen involving the battle with cancer. The cast is then invited to mention a sufferer they know AND THEN the audience is invited to do so too.
This is the most dramatic event of the whole evening. There is so much more emotion in that request than any song and dance enacted and it’s because there’s vulnerability. No doubt, layers of vulnerability permeate the stage—the actors were chosen with a criterion of being around the disease in some capacity, Bryony Kimmings’ child was very ill during the time she made the show and the audience inevitably has its own welter of experience with the Big C, yet giving the audience space to call out their family member or friend, and to a similar extent playing the tapes of real-life sufferers and having one read their own message onstage, is ineluctably powerful. The audience interaction, especially, invites a contingency that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the play. It’s a section that has no easy beginning and no easy end and by its end there is a palpable feeling of happening, like a step has been made, even if that step is not a beat in a well-delineated story. It jolts the audience into the present, and engages with the uncomfortable pressure of release (which could be an avenue for problematising it, though I haven’t thought that far ahead). Many critics snub this part because it sets off their Group Therapy alarm bells, because they believe that if theatre resembles the essence of something else then it’s not theatre. But who gives a shit whether it’s akin to group therapy? Is therapy not dramatic, not personalising, not capable of adding nuance? It’s as though they’ve forgotten about the word and influence of catharsis. Now, strictly playing fair, I am also wary of gushy slop in theatre that can too easily turn into snowflake displays, but this interaction is so carefully planned that it cannot become that (apart from the song straight afterwards). I just wish what came before could have been equally as delicate.
Should you stay for the ending? That’s a decision for you and your money. A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is frustrating: it proves too late that it’s got the skills for distinction. Though realise, also, that a play about cancer is gonna inspire so many more reactions than just mine, so it may be worth seeing it for yourself.