Reviews

Play review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

A new musical play at London’s National Theatre offers audiences a hard-hitting examination of the highs and lows of life with a cancer diagnosis.

A new musical play at London’s National Theatre offers audiences a hard-hitting examination of the highs and lows of life with a cancer diagnosis.


Scared single mother Emma (Amanda Hadingue) spends a day in a hospital oncology department. Picture: Mark Douet

‘Here’s a question. Why don’t we talk about illness and death more?’

With this, the voice of performance artist Bryony Kimmings opens her directorial debut, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer; a self-proclaimed ‘nutty weirdo of a musical’ all about cancer.

Complete with multi-coloured, dancing, singing cancer cells – characters that would not look out of place on toddler’s television – the show tackles a terrifying subject with humour and honesty.

Scared single mother Emma (Amanda Hadingue) spends a day in a hospital oncology department, waiting for her baby’s test results, and struggling to make sense of the Kingdom of the Sick – a surreal, new world she wants no part in.

Along the way she meets people dealing with a host of emotions and diagnoses – cancers of the ovaries, lungs, testicles – who take it in turns to offer up fragments of their personal stories.

Comedy is never too far from the pain and grief the show uncovers, thanks to the music (Tom Parkinson). The songs include a 70s disco number in which terminally ill Laura (Golda Rosheuvel) is transformed with a glittering party dress and afro wig and belts out demands for a miracle cure.

Lucy Osborne’s set shifts from stark, sterile, hospital environment to subverted kids’ soft play room – inflatable cancer cells expanding through doors and walls into a sinister dreamscape.

With the bleak sounds of an MRI machine filling the room for several minutes, by the second half the show changes tone, pace and form to create a highly personal, if uncomfortable, shared experience.

In the end, actors step out of character; Kimmings instructs the room to speak aloud the names of people they have loved and lost; and a real-life cancer patient takes to the stage, trembling, to read aloud her hopes.

This confessional section feels awkward in places, yet it is brave and moving too.

Nurses are no strangers to sickness, death, cancer – but A Pacifist’s Guide is an original exploration of an all-too-familiar subject.


A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer is at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London until November 29.

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