“I feel like theatre is my church,” Bryony Kimmings, writer of Complicité’s The Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer said at the end of the show whilst sat crossed legged on the stage alongside her castmates, and that’s exactly how I felt. My face damp from tears but my heart full, and knowing I was sat in a room full of people thinking and feeling exactly the same as I.
It’s difficult to describe but Bryony Kimmings has managed to cram real-life narratives, musical numbers, conversation and re-enactment into 100 minutes of seriously strong theatre that resonates entirely. Bryony narrates the production and gets involved in the dialogue, but it is mainly led by actors and musicians Eva Alexander, Gemma Storr, Lottie Vallis, Elexi Walker and Lara Veitch.
What’s interesting is Lara Veitch isn’t actually an actor, she is a friend Bryony met during her research who has had cancer six times due to Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS), the first one developing before she was even born. As the women leading the production wearing brightly coloured sparkly dresses that mimic a girl band when they sing Bryony’s songs that bring sarcasm and wit to the issues people with cancer are so sick of dealing with, such as the ‘cancer face’ they’re given when they tell people they have cancer, Lara interjects with natural, genuine dialogue delving into her story. She talks us through her constant treatments, diagnosis and the incredibly brave story as to why she decided against having reconstruction after her double mastectomy, and the resistance she faced from that.
We soon learn that Bryony’s idea for the piece came after meeting producer for the show, Judith Dimant, who had breast cancer. This spurred her on to create a guide that would help people affected by cancer, which formed the creation of the show. It’s a strong mix of loud and provocative musical numbers that display the honesty of cancer through humour, and painful mixes of silence in-between the sharp dialogue that captures the mental and physical pain of the disease.
We watch Bryony talk through her process of creating the show and displaying her attempt to understand the effect illness has. But when Bryony’s son becomes seriously ill, she portrays the vulnerability and sheer helplessness she felt, which is a really heartbreaking moment in the show, as Bryony’s pain is laid bare on the stage in front of us.
After sharing different stories, singing techno-dance music, and a variety of facts and conversations, the actors sit down on the stage and talk to us. Breaking down the fourth wall they invite a member of the audience up on stage to share their story and then encourage everyone to share the name of someone they know and love, who has or is dealing with cancer. It’s a difficult but moving ending that ties the evening together by creating a space where people don’t feel so alone. From both the cast and the audience there are laughs, tears and everything in-between, but it’s that final connection at the end that made the piece so powerful.
A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer is an exceptionally real and raw performance that felt like a huge therapy session that I, and anyone affected by cancer, so desperately needed.
On at the Coventry Belgrade Theatre until Saturday the 17th of February and tickets can be found here.