“You can fight this,” is probably the most common response to someone when they tell you they have cancer. When it comes to cancer there are so many go-to sayings being thrown about, because people don’t know what to say, so it’s either a sentence carved together with battle metaphors or not saying anything at all. Bryony Kimmings’ and Complicité new production A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer takes an upfront approach to the taboo around cancer and how we talk about it.
Bryony has looked past the pink ribbons, and poster campaigns to portray the reality of cancer beyond what we see on our television screens. The ‘C’ word seems to be the scariest word we know, and Bryony is on a mission to changing our attitude to the illness that more than 2.5 million people are living within the UK today.
When I lost my best friend Dean, people were constantly saying to him “you’re so brave” and he would say to me, “I don’t know why people keep calling me brave because it’s not like I have a choice, I have to do this treatment or I am going to die.”
It isn’t until you go through cancer, whether it’s having the illness yourself or watching it take over the life of someone you love, that you realise that it isn’t quite what the world projects it to be. It isn’t what you hear on the radio, see on the Macmillan adverts or read about in The Fault In Our Stars, and Bryony is taking the remarkable step to be frank, honest and display the raw truth.
“These films and adverts about cancer that we are bombarded with aren’t truthful, and so that is why we don’t talk about it and it doesn’t get better for people. The conversations aren’t changing because the truth isn’t really there,” Lottie Vallis explains. Lottie is Bryony’s sister, she is an actor and has been part of the show since it opened at the National Theatre in 2016. Coming from a musical theatre background, this production is like nothing she has ever worked on before.
The success of the outrageous and provocative, all-singing and all dancing musical examination of diagnosis captures both the highs and lows of cancer. Whilst the touring production remains to be extravagant and frank, it has taken a U turn, stripping it back to display both the physical and emotional side to cancer. “The original production had a huge budget, was a huge production and a lot of money was thrown into it. The production values were a lot bigger and this feels like a completely different show,” she says. “It still has the musical numbers but it feels a lot more intimate for the audience and for us as well, it is much more personal.”
The production consists of an all-female cast telling a variety of different stories. The thing about cancer is that it is complex, and each story is incredibly different from another. Narrated by writer Bryony herself, the show tells you to ‘get ready for a new way to talk about illness’. “We address the current narrative,” Lottie explains. “Everyone talks about the battle, and I think it’s quite destructive to talk about illness with words such as fighting, winning and losing. Because what if you’re told you’re terminally ill, then you’re a loser?” She emphasised how this damaging language is what stops people feeling like they can ask for help. “When you’re poorly you see it affect everyone around you and I think people with cancer put up a real front,” she adds.
These ideas are what fuelled the musical number Cancer Face which Lottie describes as being the reaction people have when you tell them you have cancer. In the tour, a lady named Lara stars in the show who’s had cancer six times. “In the show she gives people advice and tips on what to do and what to say to people who have cancer,” Lottie says. “During research we found that people either shy away from it and distance themselves from friends or relatives with cancer, which is much easier than being supportive.” Lottie expresses how there is such a stark difference between what you see on the TV and real life. Hollywood just seem to wash over cancer, and because of this people don’t know what to expect when the reality of cancer hits.
“The way that Bryony thinks and makes shows, she gives permission for people to feel that the way they are feeling is normal,” Lottie says. “If she is saying it first then other people feel as if it is okay to talk about.” There is a lot of direct address in the show and they don’t pretend there is a fourth wall because as performers they are all very aware that the audience are sat there with us. “We do break that boundary between us as actors on stage and the audience. We are people on stage and you are people in the audience so let’s not pretend that either of us know that the other is not there, because that isn’t helpful.
I think the thing I’ve found the most challenging is that I am stood up there as myself, instead of playing a character, it is exposing, but when the audience realise you are a person, they really resonate with that you’re telling them.”
The show itself creates a safe space where people are sat in an environment where they feel like they can be sad, happy or scared, and that they can talk about cancer. So many people question why on earth you would go to a show about cancer, but it’s so important. We go about our busy lives, trying not to think about it and trying not to make it a part of our life when it is. To have those two hours sat in a room where you can feel what you so desperately need to feel is probably the most important therapy session you could have.
“You know from the beginning that everyone has a person that they’ll be thinking about throughout the whole show, and there is a secret sort of acknowledgement that everyone has been through it too,” Lottie says. “It does sound heavy, but it is funny, it’s uplifting and there is singing, dancing and tears. It is a huge release for a lot of people because one minute you’re laughing and singing along and the next you’re really hit by something. But it is important to have that release.”
Music is used in the performance to bring a different dimension to the narrative of the performance. “The reason why there is music is that when Bryony interviewed people she said ‘I am going to write you a song, what would you like it to be about? If you had to describe your experience theatrically what would you want it to sound like? I think the music is a really great way to educate people without just telling them,” Lottie says. “There are big sparkly numbers and numbers that are pulled back and raw, so it really takes you on that journey of ups and downs.”
The stories in the show are made up of real life interviews that have been created into characters. “It is mainly Bryony and Lara’s story, they are the two main narratives that are in it throughout and then a couple of us embody the voices of others,” Lottie says. “We have stories of women with ovarian cancer, someone who had a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction and Lara who has had cancer many times and had a double mastectomy but not reconstruction, and she talks about that a lot.”
Lottie emphasised how throughout the journey of this show, it has touched so many people and the feedback they receive is just astounding. “I don’t read reviews but I see the tweets online and people are really moved by it,” she says. “Not only for the audience but for me I feel like I can have these essential conversations with people. It is so much more helpful for people to just be direct and honest about things because silence kills people. If anything bad happens to you, you need to talk about it and vocalise it otherwise it doesn’t get better.” Which is the core message of this production, it is shocking and real and in the words of Virginia Wolfe, Bryony has written about silence, the things people don’t say, and theatre like this has the power to change the world.
A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer ends it’s tour at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and tickets can be found on their website.