Review: A PACIFIST'S GUIDE TO THE WAR ON CANCER at the National Theatre, Dorfman

We never want to talk about cancer. And why would we really? Why would we want to discuss one of the most horrific truths about the human condition: that we could get ill and - ultimately - die from it? It's brutal to think and perhaps it's even more brutal to say, but performance artist Bryony Kimmings is trying to dilute that brutality with her latest show, and she does a bloody good job of it.

The beautiful thing about performance art is that people come out with very differing opinions, especially when the work is on a topic that is controversial like this one. Kimmings's aim with the piece is to make the conversation that we have about cancer be less awkward; she wants people to fear the illness less and feel more comfortable with it. The reviews that I've read differ massively in regards to whether or not her intentions had the desired effect and I can see their point: personally, I don't feel like I left the theatre feeling comfortable with the prospect of cancer being a thing that could really happen to me and while people have interpreted that, I don't think that's the point at all. I think the point of the piece is to show us as an audience that yeah, cancer is pretty shit and it's no fun at all, but it happens and we need to be less taboo about it.

Hal Fowler surrounded by the surreal Cancer Cells in A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

That's the vibe that carried through the entire show for me actually. The show is divided into four parts and the story follows a young lady called Emma who is taking her baby to the hospital so the baby can have some checks on him after something cropped up at a recent scan. Part One follows Emma taking her baby to the hospital and meeting different cancer patients in the waiting room. On her way around the hospital while she's waiting for her baby to have his scans, she meets several different cancer patients: some refuse to accept their illness, some are sick of being patronised for having it, and others seem to have lost hope. Part Two follows a similar structure through Emma's afternoon and in Part Three after the interval, Emma realises that her son is actually very ill indeed.

The second act opens with Emma watching her son have an MRI scan and then being called into the doctor's office to talk about the diagnosis. The whole 10 minute sequence is communicated through the overwhelming noise that has possessed Emma's mind and the third part ends with her collapsing into turmoil, a complete contrast to these long-time cancer patients that surround her. The use of sound in the piece is incredibly clever: two actors dressed as doctors stand behind a table covered in instruments and use them to communicate the noises that Emma can hear inside her head and it's sensationally effective. The story of the show ends with the message that had been communicated all along: some people get ill and it is shitty. There's no bright side to it at all; we just need to talk about it more often.

The company of A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer at the top of the show

Part Four then begins and is - in my opinion - the most affecting part of the entire show. Suddenly, Emma returns to a rather bare stage and a voiceover from writer Bryony Kimmings kicks in. Emma suddenly vanishes and Amanda - the actress who plays Emma - is present, barefooted and all. Bryony explains to Amanda that all of the characters in the show are based on real people and the actors come onto the stage and mouth along to a real recording from the person that they are playing. At the end of each of their moments, they take off their costume and exit the stage. Kimmings then eventually reveals that Emma is in fact her because her baby fell ill at the time of writing the show and she felt it was important to contrast people who are living with cancer and someone who has no idea about it whatsoever. 

Amanda then invites a cancer victim onto the stage to share their story (a different person each night) before asking the actors and the audience to call out the names of those that they know who suffer with the illness and they feel should be honoured. An awkward silence hovers over the room for a moment before people start calling names left right and centre, tears being shed and emotion filling the air. The show concludes with a song led by the cancer victim (who, may I add, is a completely random normal person, not an actor) and the show once again ends with the feeling of "this is shit, but let's not be as scared of it anymore".

The cancer patients - branded as being "Hospital Property" perform a number in the show

I can totally understand why people would turn against this show, but it affected me deeply. I left the theatre in silence - like everyone else in that theatre - thinking about what we'd all witnessed. We'd just been taken on a journey that we didn't really want to go on and at at the end, people made themselves vulnerable by calling out in a space you would never call out in. It's moving, affecting and unlike anything I've seen before. 

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer might be the most thought-provoking piece of theatre I have ever seen. Our opinion on it may differ from person to person but while you may not identify with it, you can't deny that it is an eye-opening portrayal of one of humanity's most horrible and uncomfortable topics.

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer plays at the National Theatre, Dorfman until the 29th of November. Tickets are available here.

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