A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

Coventry Belgrade B2


I went to this show with high hopes. After all, to tackle the issue of cancer, the sheer terror and ghastliness of the experience, often enough the hopelessness, the facing up to treatment, the patronising that often accompanies it, the well-meaning withholding of information, the distress and helplessness of family, the pain and painfulness and essential loneliness and utter ‘shit’ of the predicament, as this play rightly classes it, requires courage and nerve and down-to-earthiness. The sort of thing that Bryony Kimmings’ play, at its best, examines, exemplifies, elucidates, illuminates.

The trouble is, that it only intermittently works. For all its four stars from The Observer and original links with the National Theatre, let alone its association with Simon McBurney’s wondrous company Complicité (originally Théâtre de Complicité), it is on the ball but only partly successful.

Say 30 per cent of it is pure gold. The remaining 70 per cent is a mush, a clutter of mismatched images, an overegged pile-up of material that, though scrupulously honest and not at all sentimentalised, for which all credit, tumbles over itself sufficiently to spoil its own impact.

When it comes good, as it does intermittently, you realise how much you’ve missed in the bits where it fails and falls down. You yearn for it to succeed, and heave a great sigh of relief, and empathy and approval where it inspiredly does.

The start, even the first quarter of an hour, is humdrum and messy. Kimmings herself, perched on a hefty scaffolding rear stage right, as partial narrator is the worst of the speakers, at least in the early half.

She is not helped by the fact that the actors are all unevenly miked when speaking, as well as singing, for this is in part a not wholly successful Musical.

Compared with, say Eva Alexander, who enunciates to perfection, and even sounds unmiked, her speaking is almost brazenly sloppy. Yet it was the same Kimmings, co-writer, who later (see below) produced the most intense, dramatically electrifying moment in the whole show.    

Only once or twice did the music (Tom Parkinson) inspire, add anything, add up. Most of the time it obtruded, added little or nothing, got in the way. Each character has a monologue or two, all of them pertinent, absorbing, possibly perceptive. But many of these were obstructed by inane strumming on guitars, keyboard, in no particular order. The choreography (Sarah Blanc) was better: still lacking in ideas. Thin on originality, minimally related, yet their enaction of it – the vital and lucid Alexander, the beautifully articulate Alexi Walker, the invariably impressive Lottie Vallis – was mostly strong, and expressive.


Bryony Kimmings

You ached for it to have something to say, but their moving and command of what they were asked to do, merely decorative though it was, almost made up.

The show lumbered by, one well–intended but half–baked idea following another, until the scene that really impacted came along: that between Kimmings and repeated cancer sufferer Lara Veitch. Did it benefit from being microphoned, or from being played on two separate scaffolding platforms either side? No. When the scaffolding was brought together frontstage, things improved, to a degree. But did we need these pseudo–artistic, largely obstructive constructions?

Yet their conversation, thank goodness largely audible, with the immediacy of its focus on actual suffering, was poignant and telling. Nicely brought out by Kimmings as interlocutor; marvellously phrased by Veitch. The feeling of sheer honesty, no falsity at all. It was one of the sections of the play/musical that really bit. It instructed; it inspired.

Strangely, the moment that was utterly overwhelming was when the music grew to a vast, almost unbearable thrumming climax, as Kimmings, now descended (at last) from her upper hideaway, sat white–lit, isolated and forlorn, centre stage, for an amazing long time. The seconds, then minutes ticked by. All was still, Picked out and pinpointed, clad largely in a glaring white, there she sat.

Here was an image, if that was indeed the purpose, frozen in time and space, to capture the sheer loneliness and desperation and solitariness of the cancer sufferer, uncertain whether cure or death impends, shoulders braced, facing up courageously to reality, but shrunken and shrivelled inwardly. It was a magical, brilliantly conceived moment of drama, eclipsing so much of the tiresome paraphernalia that preceded, extended over minutes, and utterly mesmerising.

Kimmings’ speech was subsequently transformed. She became the most articulate of them all, reminding us how much had been wasted before. Here was an actress of almost Ibsenesque intensity, such a contrast to the forced informality of the limping start. And the excellence of this final third of the work continued. The moving honesty of a (female) member of the audience brought onstage to describe her experience; the virtual lapse of the drama into a personal conversation with the audience, even an intimate exchange with people who knew people who’d had cancer, or who knew it for themselves. This was informal, but most intensely embarked on. We were indeed drawn in.

The relaxed nature of this culmination was as effective as the relaxed tone of the early scenes was inept and uninvolving. So were those other moments when any two of the other characters engaged with one another in the script or burst out in a monologue. Gemma Storr provided much of the strumming music, but was given little to strum about; Eva Alexander the best of the singers, as also consistently of the speakers. Walker not far behind, and Vallis, when not drowned out, which was rare.

For a piece involving four years in the making, albeit much of it devoted to painstaking research and interviewing, it’s a real hotch–potch of a piece that’s the outcome, with moments of tiresome bathos, often enough lacking much of the dramatic pacing theatre demands and needs. But when it hits the nail on the head, pure and simple, it has the ingredients. If only, given their worthwhile subject they weren’t such a please–all medley that too often misses the jackpot. To 17-02-18

Roderic Dunnett


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