Currently playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre is the new musical ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’. The co-production with Complicite and HOME Manchester is part vibrant musical, part heart-wrenching verbatim and autobiography.
The first act is introduced through voice-over by Bryony Kimmings, the writer, director, and inspiration of her main character, Emma. Emma is a single mum, whose baby is being tested for cancer, and played remarkably well by Amanda Hadingue. Unfortunately, not all the other characters are explored in as much depth, but for this production that isn’t necessarily a problem. The collective of characters bring together different stories in the world of a hospital oncology department to illustrate what it is like to be involved with this cruel disease.
The ensemble is incredibly strong, and another testament to the diverse casting going on at The National currently. The music is varied in style, and some songs are stand-out. The show even boasts dancing tumours, which in the world of this musical, isn’t amiss and just adds to the weird and vibrant examination of life with cancer.
The second half very quickly descends from the upbeat musical first half, to become more dark and real. From the claustrophobic (but perhaps too long) opening of Emma alone onstage watching her baby in MRI, the audience are soon witness to verbatim speeches by the people who inspire characters. The actress playing Emma even converses with Bryony in voice-over, which allows a glimpse into her experience. But I felt the voice-over went on perhaps too long without more of a presence onstage, which was quite distancing. However the fourth wall is broken by this point, and the audience are invited to name people they know who have battled cancer. And by this point, the entire auditorium was audibly sobbing, and after an awkward hesitation, people in droves are shouting names of loved ones, and themselves. By this point you may be aware you are being emotionally manipulated, and more moved by your own recollection than the show’s content, but it breaks you down to a state of open vulnerability so that you are crying amongst an auditorium of strangers. I have never seen a show manage this, and I’m not sure I will again. It is all down to the subject matter, and the vast effect it has on multitudes of lives, but this show has the brilliance to move you and be the vehicle to open emotions without being sentimental. Such was this effect, the audience were silent as they left. Another first for me in my years of theatregoing.
Overall, this weird and wonderful musical may have small flaws, but it doesn’t detract from the superb cast and aim of the piece. It openly proclaims its absurdities (Such as the dancing tumours!) and that makes us as an audience accept them. It is both a moving and upbeat musical, and an emotional and well-observed examination of life affected by cancer. The show explains at the start that you can’t have a musical about such a negatively associated subject, but that is part of its aim. As it says, we as a nation are terrible at talking about cancer, or any illness or death. And in its own way, it brings the audience to accept this and the need to be more open with emotions, without dictating how, but just leads you along to the emotional end. Perhaps you will leave that in the auditorium, but maybe a few people will begin to be more open about their vulnerabilities, and talk more about this sort of subject.