A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer at The National Theatre
Written and Directed by: Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel with Complicite Associates
Music by Tom Parkinson with lyrics by Bryony Kimmings
Main Cast: Amanda Hadingue, Emma; Naana Agaei-Ampadu, Gia; Rose Shaloo, Shannon; Hal Fowler, Mark; Golda Rusheuvel, Laura; Gary Wood, Stephen; Amy Booth-Steel, Stephen’s Mum/Ensemble.
I have been lucky enough not to be directly touched by cancer – and increasingly I have found myself wondering if this affected my reaction to Bryony Kimmings’ production. Walking out of the show, initially I was moved; having just been part of an audience that volunteered the names of loved ones who had been affected, or taken, by cancer. The cast gave names too and were visibly affected – many in the audience were audibly so. I start with this personal perspective because the production itself was intensely personal, like Kimmings other work; her previous 2015/2016 production, Fake it ’til You Make It, was ‘about clinical depression and men… from two people who know all about it’  – where she performed alongside her (now ex) partner, who is both male and suffers from depression. As Kimmings’ pre-recorded voice introduces this latest show, she explains that this time her focus is on illness and death – and specifically our resistance as a society to talking about these tricky topics. Then she announces, with the same bravado she exhibits in her popular ‘Fanny Song’ (where she lists various names for female genitalia) that she thought the best way to go about this was through the lens of one of the most ‘frightening’ of illnesses, cancer – adding that they decided to make it a musical ‘to sell tickets’.
Whether you believe this claim or not, it’s a bold move on Kimmings’ part – and is reflective of another apparent aim of this ‘musical’: to challenge cancer’s mythologies and reveal the emotional complexities that this can obscure. True to the pun in the show’s title (A Pacifists’ Guide to the War on Cancer), Kimmings attempts to turn inside-out the notion of ‘the war on cancer’ – a phrase coined by Richard Nixon in his 1971 signing of the National Cancer Act and that since has become a rhetorical tool used by both the mainstream media, and charities (such as Cancer Research UK, ‘so many lives lost […] but we fought on’ ), to raise funds; giving a rise to a sort of mythic narrative that can act as a ‘barrier to normalising cancer’ , isolating both society and the individuals dealing with a diagnosis. Kimmings show sets cancer not on a battlefield but in what seems an average room in any old NHS hospital. Each of the grey, ceiling-tiled walls that enclose the stage has a double door (the kind that makes it easy for gurneys push open), and basic slatted blinds conceal the musicians. Initially the cast are dressed like anyone you might meet on the street, and in a highly choreographed manner they mime walking (as if) in streets – singing about knowing that cancer could happen to any of them, but that
‘everything is fine […] I mustn’t moan –
I could be dying of that cancer in a bed alone –
don’t think about statistics, never trust T.V.
I’ll just focus on the mobile phone in front of me!’
We are in this ‘street’ because we are following Emma, who was introduced by Kimmings’ voice at the start of the show – where she explained that she is en route to the hospital where her baby will undergo a series of scans. Only later will we find out (again via Kimmings’ voice) that Emma’s story is based on Kimmings’ own experience of having a very ill baby, although not with cancer – rather, ‘something called West Syndrome’ . The other patients we meet when Emma reaches the hospital are familiar faces – we saw them walking in the ‘street’ – and they have each been diagnosed with cancer, of various forms; ranging from ovarian (Laura), testicular (Stephen) and lung (Mark) cancers, that most people have heard of, to less common ones – as with Shannon, who has a genetic predisposition to cancer and has therefore had several cancers despite her young age. Further, just as later we learn that Emma is based on real experience we will discover that these ‘characters’ are also based on real people. Indeed, at the close of the performance, their recorded voices (taken as part of the ‘research for this show’ Kimmings’ voice informs us) are played as the actors playing them mime along to their words. This was very moving at the time – especially as Kimmings’ tells us that Laura died shortly after making the recording – and set the tone for the name-giving mentioned earlier.
Yet whilst this adheres to the notion that this show is a ‘celebration of ordinary life and death’  it risks being too realist: perhaps even to the point of offence. By grounding the production so directly in ‘real lives’ Kimmings paradoxically hazards depersonalising the people she presents, something that is particularly apparent when the cast call up a ‘real cancer patient’  (as she was advertised as in the leaflets and on the National’s website) onto the stage and have her her read out her ‘hopes’. Although I thought that it was brave of her to get up and do this it also made me feel a little uncomfortable at the time – but I overlooked it because of the heightened emotion in the auditorium. Now, upon reflection, I feel increasingly troubled by her being called up. I can’t help but wonder if this, in some ways, reduced her and her experiences into a dramatic device… and in the same vein whether the names the audience and cast gave could be considered in the same light.
Nonetheless, before we get to this, Kimmings’ presents an interesting impression of what it’s like to become entangled in the bizarre logic of cancer – where
‘negative is positive and positive is negative […and] growth is bad’
– and the world of illness more generally. One of the songs, ‘The Kingdom of the Sick’ (borrowing a term coined by Susan Sontag, from her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, where she argues that the ‘healthiest way of being ill’  is to be ‘resistant to metaphoric thinking’  regarding illness) frankly presents the shock of encountering the reality of being in a hospital environment amongst people whose interactions and behaviours are somewhat dictated by sickness:
‘subtle as an icepick’
the cast sing as they dance jerkily – in a half-mechanical-half-deranged way. Personally I could relate to this. Recently my granddad was in hospital, and when visiting him my expectation of his care being delicately attuned to his needs were tested – in particular in terms of the lack of privacy afforded to patients on his ward. Mark, during the song, talks about curtains that fail to mask the sounds and smells of human effusions. This seemingly tiny thing is something I experienced directly when visiting my granddad – something he would have experienced constantly – and it distressed me quite a lot. By relating to this tiny detail in the show, it somehow unlocked my capacity to speak about this (as my friends would attest) – fulfilling Kimmings’ aim to get us talking more about illness without masking its inglorious realities with glorious metaphors.
Another song (Gia’s personal number – each character who has cancer is given their own song to express how they are dealing with their diagnosis emotionally; for example Stephen’s, where he addresses his worried mother, asking for his independence back) boldly presents the frustration of dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and challenges presentations of cancer sufferers in the media. As they dance with iPads (it’s night-time in the hospital) the cast sing
emphasising the ’s’ so that they sound as if they are hissing in anger. This is certainly not the presentation of cancer that mainstream media or charities regularly portray; something that Barbara Ehrenreich dubs ‘the pink ribbon culture’  in her essay reflecting upon her time with cancer. From her own experience she argues that this attitude demands the harmful ‘denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear’  upon finding out you have cancer, ‘all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer’. This attitude is echoed by Gia, who looks up from one of the iPads and talks about the articles on Buzzfeed she has been reading, all of which present the ‘positive stories’ of ‘positive cancer patients’ – working herself into a fury, and eventually
‘I wish everyone would stop telling me how to deal with my cancer!’
We are also shown how emotionally harrowing the process of being diagnosed with cancer can be. We see this through Emma’s experience. Before she finds out that her son’s tests are positive, we watch her sitting alone, spotlit, and centre stage with the uncomfortably loud noises of the scanners being used on her son reverberating around the room. This lasts for about three minutes, but it seems an eternity: just as it must do for Emma, whose face constantly contorts with anxiety as we watch. Then, when she is told the results of the scan, the voice of the nurse is cancelled out – being replaced with a tinnitus-like ringing – with the exception of the word ‘options’. Through this the audience is placed in Emma’s position for a moment and we feel the almost inexpressible pressure of such a frightening diagnosis.
This is also reflected in the set, which, as the show progresses, is colonised by huge inflatable cancer cells – that break through the ceiling tiled walls, pressing the characters towards the audience. These are both cartoonish and sinister – just like the people dressed as gargantuan cancer cells, in brightly coloured and bedazzled lumpy suits, who follow the characters around. Bizarre as they are, these characters embody the jangling tones of this show. They represent the strange and frightening world of cancer as they follow those in the ‘Kingdom of the Sick’ but one of them also puts cancer in its simplest and least frightening terms. Jovially she sings, to a nursery-rhyme like tune,
‘a cancer cell is a normal cell that starts to mutate…’
explaining how cancer cells become a tumour – ending:
‘I’m sorry if this is crass’.
This, to me, epitomises this ‘musical’ because it’s up to as to whether you think this apology is needed or not. To me, it’s yes and no.
More information about the production can be found at: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-pacifists-guide-to-the-war-on-cancer
by Emily Swettenham
28th October 2016.
 Kimmings, B. 2016. [online]. Available at: http://www.bryonykimmings.com/current.html [Accessed: 28th October 2016].
 Bryony Kimmings. 2013. The Fanny Song. . Available at: http://www.bryonykimmings.com/thefannysong.html [Accessed: 28th October 2016].
 Cancer Research UK. 2014. Let’s beat cancer sooner – Cancer Research UK. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CK4lYmL8fI [Accessed: 28th October 2016].
 The Lancet Oncology. 2016. ‘Perceptions of cancer in society must change’. The Lancet. Vol.17. No.3. March 2016. [online]. Available at: http://thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(16)00091-7/fulltext [Accessed: 28th October 2016].
 Kimmings, B. 2016. Overshare / Catch Up. [blog]. Available at: http://thebryonykimmings.tumblr.com [Accessed: 28th October 2016].
 The National Theatre. 2016. A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer. [online]. Available at: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-pacifists-guide-to-the-war-on-cancer [Accessed: 28th October 2016].
 Sontag, S. 1978. Illness as Metaphor. [online]. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/4/4a/Susan_Sontag_Illness_As_Metaphor_1978.pdf p.g.3. [Accessed: 28th October 2016]. p.g.3.
 Ehrenreich, B. 2010. ‘Smile! You’ve got cancer.’ The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/02/cancer-positive-thinking-barbara-ehrenreich [Accessed: 28th October 2016].