Every year or so, I see a show that stays with me for life – for it’s content, performances, something makes it stick in the back of my memory and continue to rave about it long after the curtain as fallen. This year, I strongly feel it will be this enlightening, powerful, honest and witty feminist manifesto that takes on the big bad c word – cancer. Think of what you know about cancer and think about whether you know any stereotypes about it, understand how people talk about it, and prepare to have it all dismantled and turned on its head in this show.
Reality, sequins and music – The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer has it all. Over 50 patients, doctors and cancer care experts were interviewed to make this verbatim piece of theatre, that unfolds following Bryony Kimmings, author and performer of the show as she researched, wrote the show and met people who would inform the storyline. She met a number of real, authentic people who questioned the notion that cancer makes us “a fighter” and that we suddenly become brave in the face of illness, and examines the reality of this, and the sides that people never talk about – sickness, darkness, depression, suffering. The show manages to do this both in good humour and wit, and powerfully and emotionally.
Here is a paragraph where I gush the praises of Kimmings – a fierce advocate for females, a strong creative and an explorer of different issues, she has shown bravery taking on this show and showcasing her life in this space, but the show all comes together in relevance and emotional climax when she stops observing the world of the sick and steps into it when she discovers her new born son isn’t well. She peppers the show with personal and amusing anecdotes, and fun British phrases like ‘fizzy knickers’, reflecting on her journey with the show as ‘such a narcissist and often broke that she wrote herself into the show’. However, it’s her testimony and reflection that allows those with no understanding or experience with illness into the space and reflect upon her journey. She observes the show from above on a raised platform and navigates the audience through her research while actors act out the interview recordings, melodramatic and fiery songs and poignant moments through this journey, peppered with metaphors and phrases from Susan Sontag and other authors who have written on illness.
Rocking out on stage with instruments, powerful performances and live singing are several excellent performers – Kimmings is joined by Eva Alexander, Gemma Storr, Lottie Vallis (Kimmings’ little sister), Lara Vietch and Elexi Walker. They become fiery representations of powerful independent women who have had or have cancer, rock stars and librarians in bouffants. Except for one – Lara Vietch. Vietch is one of the most powerful elements of the story, being a multi-cancer survivor and oracle of hospital, treatment and cancer knowledge. She shares her raw thoughts and feelings of her journey, and what she’s really thinking, as she’s telling her own story as it happened. Her reveal of what she went through is agonising and honest, while also being palatable and explained well to the masses. Her story manages to be both heart breaking, inspiring and for her, it simply is what it is – and she’s still here.
The choreography and movement throughout the show perfectly reflects the journey we go on – from wild, manic rock and roll movements to graceful flow through the stage, to movements that appear to mimic the decline, struggle and recovery through illness. Music and sound effects match this completely, from music and sounds created on stage by the performers to pre-recorded pieces, the show is a rich tapestry of sound. An incredible, overpowering and electric moment blows the second half of the show wide open and marks a massive change in tone – Kimmings’ reaction and headspace, and what she could or couldn’t hear as she waits to hear what is wrong with her son is just heartbreaking and overwhelming.
My only qualm with the show being that sometimes, the sound design and levels didn’t allow all of the voices the balance they deserved- at times backing vocals completely overpowered the lead vocals, and vice versa. I also heard from other friends in the audience that if you weren’t sitting centre to the stage, it became harder to hear, but given I was sitting dead centre and sobbing, it’s hard for me to imagine the incredible sound I heard, this thick, interwoven blanket of sound that completely enveloped me, not being experienced by the whole audience.
‘Cancer Face’ is a magnetic number about the toxic pity and the reaction that friends, family and the general public may have when someone says ‘I have cancer’ or talk about treatments. The comedic, sassy number highlights the issues in our reactions to this news, whether it’s our business to comment or have an opinion, and pointed out some clear things and stereotypical friends to avoid.
The set is dynamic and spectacular – huge pieces with actors on top move around the stage to create intimate spaces, or wide open voids filled with pain and suffering, but the set completely compliments the show, with an incredible reveal towards the end of the show. The lighting helps to set this mood and keep this space ever-changing, from cosy home settings to bleak, sterile hospital environments and more.
By the end of the show, the audience are crying just as hard as the cast are – each night brings a new audience member on stage to discuss their cancer experience, and to allow both the cast and audience a moment to share the names of people they may have been thinking of during the show. Kimmings expresses it as “Theatre is like her church”, but it also feels a little bit like a therapy session, allowing us to learn and reflect and perhaps leave some of the guilt we may feel, or lack of understanding, in the space.
A huge life lesson from the show – no one else gets to have an opinion on your body or your choices, sick or well, cancer or none. Come along to learn, to listen, to share, but do not miss this show – a strong manifesto to female friendship, and an amusing and touching life lesson, this show will have a subjective but profound effect on all viewers. You only have until 18th March to see this incredible piece of theatre – tickets from http://malthousetheatre.com.au/