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Why We Need This Musical About Cancer

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Photo: Richard Davenport
Bryony Kimmings
“Everyone who is born holds a dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later, each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

These words, taken from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, form the basis of a new musical, running for six weeks at the National Theatre. They also form the basis of the lead song in the musical, performed by a cast of all-singing all-dancing actors who are either impersonating cancer patients, or have had cancer themselves.

"That sounds a bit crass," you might say. Well that was Bryony Kimmings’ point. With A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer, the performance artist cum director wanted to create a piece of work that aimed to tackle the stigma around illness, a stigma compounded by the good old British reluctance to talk about anything sad or unsavoury. The musical forces its audience to ponder the privilege of health, laughing and crying as we follow a single mum through her baby’s journey into the kingdom of the sick, meeting an array of different cancer sufferers on the way.

Kimmings is renowned for her clever treatment of the kind of issues you might not traditionally consider as “comedy fodder”. Her first work saw her look to trace the source of an STD by revisiting past lovers. In her next, Seven Day Drunk, about her own relationship with alcohol, she coerces an audience member to get drunk on stage. Then, last year, there was Fake It Till You Make It, a hugely successful play about men and depression which did a spell at London’s Southbank Centre.

To find out more about how you write a cancer musical, and one that’s at the same time sensitive yet provocative, we met up with Bryony and her baby Frank.

Did you decide to write a musical first or write something about cancer first?

Cancer. Judith, the producer at [theatre company] Complicite, came to see some of my shows. Then we had a meeting and I had a few ideas but she wasn’t keen. And she told me that she had breast cancer in passing and I said, “Well do you want to make something about that?” because I wanted to make stuff about other people not just myself. Mostly because I’d run out of things to talk about and I didn’t want to be that person – although to be honest this show is actually about me as well – but anyway, I said: "Can I come to your radiotherapy with you?" and she said yes.
Photo: Mark Douet
And then you decided it would be a musical?
It had something not to do with Jerry Springer the Opera, but the next version of that – I wanted to make something was high brow and low brow. Musicals are good at talking about massive things in quite a jovial way. West Side Story is about racism, Rent is about AIDS. It wasn’t that I was like “I love musicals let’s make a musical”. I actually kind of hate musicals, but it seemed like the right medium.

Did you watch a lot of them to research it? What was the best and what was the worst?
Book of Mormon... I left half way through. Everyone was like "haha racism" and I was like “no". I loved... hmm... London Road, but that’s it really.

How did you research the cancer?
I followed loads of people around. About 15, 20 people. The characters are either based on people I met or an amalgamation of a couple of people. The smoking dad is the only one that's not real. I just really wanted a smoking person in it, as a smoker myself, but we didn’t find someone so I made one up. I don’t usually do that but I thought I was allowed because there’s plenty of people like that around. A lot of the people we got were just friends of friends or people Judith was talking to at her hospital. Everyone knows someone with cancer.

Do you know anyone?
I didn’t before. But still, I thought it would be interesting to make a piece about how I was terrified of it and didn’t know anything about it. And then once I started to learn about it I got less and less terrified of it. It was an experiment to talk to people and see if I could make something out of people’s stories. I got really into the science of it after that.

How did you write the songs?
The songs were written from interviews. With "Kingdom Of The Sick", I knew from Susan Sontag's quote that I really wanted to write a song about that so I asked everyone I met the same question about it. Other songs like "Miracle" came from a woman I met called Lara saying she’d had this fundraiser that was 70s so I knew I wanted to make her a disco banger. And she kept talking about how there must be a miracle cure and she was in denial so I made it about that. She was always terminal when I met her, but only a month before she died did she say, “Right I’ve got terminal cancer”. But that was just her coping mechanism.

The story of Stephen and his mum was really easy – he just told me about how his mum came to hospital and it was really embarrassing and she kept interrupting and saying he should put his sperm in the sperm bank and he didn’t want to do it. And then Shannon was based on a hypothetical situation about having a rare genetic disorder and being pregnant. But her mum had the same cancer so the part about having a predisposed condition was true.

You mention in the musical that, during making it, Frank got sick?

He’s been ill for a while. He has a really severe form of epilepsy so we’ve been in and out of hospital, he was in hospital having 100 fits a day. I spent a lot of time following people around in the kingdom of the sick and then went in myself with him.

Is that how you decided to have the main character as a mother with a baby?
It just sort of evolved into that. There was always going to be a woman who was a guide and she was talking through what it’s like to have cancer but it was just too dry. I was going to be in and then I wasn’t in it.

The casting is really diverse, was that conscious?
We wanted some people in the cast who'd had cancer before. We wanted to have lots of different faces, a cross section of society. Wanted it to look like London. To have people with disabilities. For it to look like ordinary people. And then we had to cast people who could act and sing and dance as well.
You talk about the idea of "the cancer face " in one scene – can you explain that?
Lots of people talked about it in different ways. It’s a thing. It’s something people do. Lots of people talked about how their friends disappear, or people they hardly know become amazing, people who are used to illness. And other people spoke about people’s uncomfortableness or thinking they’re going to catch it. We asked people what are your guide points for having cancer and people said just don’t act any differently. Like, it’s not hard, just be normal.

What did you learn that you didn’t already know?
That there are over 200 types of cancer. That one in two of us will get it. That stress doesn’t give it to you. That alcohol does, smoking does, bad food does. That dementia can be more terrifying than cancer. That I’m not as scared of it as I used to be. That I hope I don’t get it cause it’s fucking horrible. That I’m a terrible writer. I feel the strengths I have are not to do with writing dialogue.

I think you are, but talking of which, the second half is quite self-reflexive and breaks the fourth wall, talks to the audience, asks them to get involved. Why did you decide to do that?
I wanted everyone to sing together at the end like it was church. There’s something uplifting about music for me – and no one ever likes to sing, everyone’s too embarrassed. But if they do it then you’ve done a really good job. I thought it everyone sang at the end it would be like we’ve gone through something together. There’s a part in the show where people can call out names of people they’ve lost. Some people love it, some hate it. Our band hate it. But to me it felt nice to make a collective space for remembering people. There was an exercise on first day where all 15 of us that made the show had to talk about our relationship with cancer, and everyone had a relationship and it felt like "wow, this is so prolific" and it felt good to reflect that in the theatre.

What do you hope people take away from A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer ?
I’m not sure how people will feel about it. I do hope it makes people talk about about illness in their families and friendship groups. And realise it’s not as scary as they thought before. And that people have a nice night at the theatre. And that other people think “I’ve never done that at the theatre before and I liked it”.
Tickets here.
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