TUMOURS, RUMOURS, A BIT OF HUMOUR
The cancer thing finished off another old friend at the weekend, the call coming between the official press night and my getting to Bryony Kimmings’ show. Even before that, having lost a brother this summer and several friends beforehand , I was among those who flinched at the title and was ready to question the auteur’s voice-of-God announcement that we don’t talk enough about cancer: another thirty years’ attrition, girl, and you’ll know different. But I suspect this play’s real strength is in addressing a millennial generation and – importantly – one more at home with cabaret and fringe performance than traditional theatre. Fair enough.
It as divided critics sharply, the grumpier reviews provoking defiant tweets from the creator “I think I just care about other things to lots of people in this theatre lark”…”I am feeling protective of the space we are trying to create… The alternative stories we are trying to tell. The truth”. and tellingly, “reviewers have little time for performance art”. Oh come on! We’re all fringe-hardened, quite at home being pushed through car-tyres in the dark or forced to role-play as talking cucumbers. There’s a place for kicking down the fourth wall . And this is a partnership with Complicité, and we trust that.
With some lovely bluesy and harmonic songs by Tom Parkinson (lyrics by Kimmings), it follows the first day of an unwilling pilgrim in the “Kingdom of the Sick”: a hospital set with seven baffling exits, and a nicely diverse dozen playing as patients at various stages, some occasionally nipping into bulgy colourful costumes as cancer cells (the young Imperial medic next to me said they are pleasingly accurate). Sometimes huge inflatable cells come out of the walls in fantasy dread sequences, hemming them in; sometimes the ensemble realistically wait on plastic chairs, or nightmarishly jerk and stamp like zombies. Sometimes they express to our heroine – Amanda Hadingue as Emma – recognizable gripes. Like ripping up the hospice leaflets in denial, or having friends putting on the soupy “cancer face”, enjoy the drama too much or offer quack cures. In the most convincing song (to my mind) they all just furiously sing a hissing chorus of “Fuck thissss! Fuck thissss!”.
A problem , though, is that (because of her own experience with a sick baby, which Kimmings recounts in voiceover at the end) she makes the main protagonist not a patient but a single mother, apparently without friends, bringing her infant for cancer treatment. Now a new mother’s agonies are specific, violent and unique: not the experience of a diagnosed adult. And this, I am afraid, unbalances the piece. It’s not unconvincing – the second half opens with five minutes of a roaring, throbbing, spotlit stillness of waiting, and a crazed ritual of maternal grief. But it oddly dilutes the more common cancer experience, the quieter truth we all get to know as hardened supporters and funeralgoers. Because it is so much a young person’s piece, my generation may miss what we see more of: the black humour, the stoicism, the focused desire to understand the science, the lassitude, the quiet talk of the past with old friends.
The tone moves from furious zombie energy to nursery platitudes: let me hastily say I have nothing against that, sometimes a warm-milk platitude is just what an invalid needs: a jingle like the one the cast sing at the end after revealing that they are representing research subjects whose recorded voices come out of the air: “Fingers crossed! Make a wish! For myself! And those I miss!”. The audience was not entirely on-side when asked to speak the name of someone with cancer they love or lost, and a survivor invited onstage to express her hopes for the NHS etc. was represented by a gallant stage-manager reading her message.
That bit really annoyed some critics, but in the general oddity of the piece as a whole, I was fine with it. The conclusion may be soupy, but it is heartfelt. For some, it may prove important.
box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 29 Nov