Review of A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer at the National Theatre
This show calls itself "an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of ordinary life and death," but there's nothing ordinary about it: it's an extraordinary, sometimes weird but wonderful portrait of cancer, and its diagnosis and treatment, in all its terror and everyday mundanity, too.
Once again the National are pushing the musical boat out, and after such previous triumphs as Jerry Springer the Opera and London Road, are proving that there's nothing musicals can't do. Here things become a little meta, as performance artist, writer and activist Bryony Kimmings -- who has devised and diligently researched it, as well as writing and directing it --asks in a voice-over at the top of the show, "How could you make a show about illness and death without risking no one coming? Well, the language surrounding cancer is weird. Fierce battles, Brave Warriors. Inspirational survivors. It all sounds like what you say to sick people if you are really uncomfortable with talking honestly about illness. So it would be best to make a show about cancer that DIDN'T do any of that. And so it wasn't boring or depressing... we would make it into nutty weirdo of a musical."
She's right about that. Kimmings's work has previously put herself front and centre, in solo shows or two-handers, of autobiographical subjects; this time she is an observer, heard only on tape, though her own story becomes another integral part of it, as she includes the illness of her own young son to personalise our responses to "the kingdom of the sick."
The show in fact issues a direct invitation to the audience to remember people they know who are ill, too. A highly personal show speaks to each one of us and the theatre becomes a place to share an experience that affects us all in one way or another.
If it's a deliberately discomforting show to watch, it's also a hugely entertaining one -- poignant and painful, funny and surprising, as it portrays a series of patients affected; and invites us to not just empathise or sympathise, but also own our feelings with honesty.
Performed by a tremendous ensemble cast, there isn't a show around quite like it. It deserves to be seen.
What the Press Said...
"I felt I was attending a secular revivalist meeting."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Tom Parkinson’s music is unmemorable and is all but jettisoned after the interval in favour of a wearying number of pre-recorded voiceovers from Kimmings herself to her actors."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press