When he was 29, Daniel Tobias was feeling a bit under the weather. Off he trotted to his doctor, asking – presumably not in song, as he does in his new one-man show The Orchid and the Crow – “What shall we do about the pain in my tummy (my stools are runny!) and the butter bean in my neck?”.
After being sent to multiple doctors who all asked him the same questions, Tobias got some bad news: it was stage three testicular cancer, which had already spread throughout his body. “On the scans,” he says, “I lit up like a Christmas tree.”
What do you do when confronted by that kind of news? Curse the universe? Turn to God? Tobias did neither. He and his family are Jewish atheist – or, as he puts it, “Christmas and bacon loving Jews” – so appealing to God (hilariously presented by Tobias as a Carson Kressley-esque man with a penchant for Jewish foreskins) was not an option. Then, Tobias discovered Lance Armstrong. He had found his God.
The Orchid and the Crow is not a self-indulgent, wallowing cancer story, as I originally worried it would be. It is a story peppered with funny and engaging songs, and injected with rock ‘n’ roll and show business (complete with Artful Dodger-like heel clicks and jazz hands).
It is marketed as a tragicomedy, and it is one of the most exemplary tragicomedies I have had the pleasure of watching. Tobias has spun a story that is less about his cancer diagnosis, and more about faith, family and self-belief. It is a journey about losing hope and gaining it again. He doesn’t dwell on the Lance Armstrong worship; we get a sense of just how important he was to Tobias, without him wallowing in self-indulgence.
Opening night had a few teething issues which I’ll put down to nerves. I found the opening song to be barely understandable – an initial problem with the sound mixing I think – but after that everything was fine.
Tobias – unrecognisable as his alter-ego Otto Rot of comedy duo Die Roten Punkte – is a diverse and skilled performer. Each song is injected with electric energy that never interfered with its emotional or comedic integrity. Apart from a slightly long opera spoof (an aria dedicated to his beloved right testicle), the show rockets along at a terrific pace, bouncing between Jewish history, family stories and personal experiences. While everything came together nicely, it would be nice to have a more obvious link between the wider explorations of Tobias’ Jewishness (or lack thereof) and his experiences of having cancer. The closing beautiful image of having a picnic with his dad at the end of all the unpleasantness, followed by a song asking “who wouldn’t want to be blessed?” makes for a lovely ending.
The show was well-directed by Christian Leavesley, and the team behind the show – songwriter Clare Bartholomew (also the other half of Die Roten Punkte), dramaturg Casey Bennetto, script consultant David Quirk, lighting designer Lisa Mibus, and many others – have worked together to produce a funny and touching show that never wallows in sentimentality, but instead rises above it to celebrate family, hope, resilience and joy.