One in two of us will experience cancer first-hand and, for Toby Peach, being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 19 and again at 21 forced him to confront his own mortality.
In a brave move, Peach decided to create a solo theatre piece not only to look back on his disease but celebrate life, The Eulogy of Toby Peach. This deeply personal play won rave reviews in Edinburgh and is about to open at London’s VAULT Festival before a short UK tour. Peach spoke to Glen Pearce about the show.
The Eulogy of Toby Peach is deeply raw and personal. Was it hard to create?
When I started unpacking the story, it didn’t really occur to me what kind of beast I was unpacking. I just got fascinated by what cancer was and what was happening to me as I had no idea. I suddenly started unpacking all these dark stories, things that I would have left alone, but there was an element of me going ‘I need to look into these things, what is it I’m shying away from, what is it I’m not talking about and why is that?’ Actually, it has been quite cathartic in a way, looking at those things and understanding what has happened during that time when life was a bit of a blur. Coming to an understanding of that has helped me in a way.
So does performing it night after night also present a challenge?
Performing it has its highs and lows as well. Basically, the show poses the question ‘How am I still here?’ and I guess that’s what I’ve been doing through developing and researching this, I wanted to know why I’m still alive as that didn’t make much sense to me. The journey that I go on during the show is the same thing I’ve been doing in making it, what it is that makes me be alive? Who has done this? I realised that cancer was just me. A lot of people talk about cancer as a battle but the reality is while it is a battle it’s a rebellion, you’re fighting yourself. I didn’t do anything to save myself but somebody else did. Actually getting to the end of the show is a type of catharsis as I’ve found the answer and every time I get to that point it’s an unbelievable feeling. I don’t want to spoil ending but if I get it right it’s very raw for me and I go ‘wow, this is the reason I’m alive.’
You were diagnosed first aged 19, an age when most people don’t think of disease. What was your knowledge of cancer like at the time?
100% ignorant. My gran had died of cancer but other than that you think it’s just an old person’s disease. The reality is that for the majority of people it is, there’s only 1% of people who get cancer aged 18-24. Also, add in the fact that I was healthy, I was a runner and didn’t smoke or drink excessively – all these things that meant I didn’t expect this thing to happen to me. That’s part of the problem, these things crop up in our lives and even if you’re not young you don’t expect to get it. It’s a funny old thing, even though one in two people will know someone affected by cancer, ask anyone who is diagnosed and it’s still a shock and that shock is an important part of the journey. That moment of realisation is something I talk about a lot in the show. It doesn’t hit you straight away, it takes time to click in your mind what is going on.
You’ve toured the show to theatres but also to events like The Teenage Cancer Trust Conference. Is raising the awareness of cancer an important driver for you?
There’s a real element of education with it but it’s about acknowledging this thing happens, about acknowledging that there is a lot of darkness with it. I talk about the hardest word, I think, in cancer is hope. I’m not focussing on negatives, and I do cross over into dark themes, but the reality is there is a reason why I’m alive and the percentage of people surviving is beginning to go up. We’ve a long way to go, which is why hope is such a difficult word to say, but we are getting somewhere.
The Teenage Cancer Trust gig just blew me away. I’d been very aware of the sensitive nature, particularly for audience members who had either had it or had lost somebody through it. Suddenly I was faced with an audience of 300 people who had either had it or were part of their support teams. So I was very concerned about performing it, it was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve had, but the best thing was they completely got it. They were laughing at things that a lot of audiences don’t get but they were also feeling what I was feeling – there is an element of why their alive and what are all the things that need to pull together to make sure they even have a chance to still be alive. Again, that element of hope.
Humour plays an important part in telling the story. Is it hard to draw humour out of often quite dark situations?
You are aware that you are talking about some quite dark moments in a person’s life, in this case, my life, but the reality is that nobody wants to sit there and listen to me going on about how bad something was and moan about a situation. I think the reason that entertainment is used is to make that world accessible to a theatre audience. I want to reach as many people as possible with this, and if its one in two now that knows someone affected by cancer; it’s probable that people coming to see this show will have a direct or indirect link with cancer. To make that link to people and to allow them to come away understanding what cancer is and what a patient goes through, you have to make it entertaining. Some of it is quite easy to do – I talk about my funeral songs and questioning your mortality and accepting death – that’s very heavy stuff but I do it through talking about an affair I have. There is a bit of a love story thread throughout the show with me and my girlfriend but there is a bit about the affair I have with my IV stand ‘Ivy’. She takes me to the dark side, gives me drugs and we shave off all my hair and is a bad influence. Those things people connect with straight away, they may be laughing but the message comes straight through.
While the focus, quite rightly, is on the patient, friends and family also go through a range of emotions. What has been their reaction to the show?
A lot of them have come, especially friends who knew I was going through it but who weren’t visiting all the time because everybody has their own lives. A lot of them went away going ‘oh I didn’t know that was going on’. Like the vast majority of any cancer patients I’m sure, my answer to any question about having it, or even a couple of years after it, if anyone said ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was the treatment?’, I’d just go ‘ok’, ‘it was alright’ and move on to close down the conversation. To a lot of them the show was a case of me opening up and going ‘yes, I had these dark thoughts’ and ‘yes, I had these struggles’. I might have said I was OK but a lot of cancer patients aim to protect the ones they love when going through it by trying to be positive.
When developing the show were there any moments you went ‘no, that’s too dark or personal to include’?
Yes, there have been moments. What’s been important and I think it’s really important with biographical work, is that I’ve had an outside eye. So I’ve been working with my director, Dave Jackson. I’ve mentioned one small line in an early draft about something dark and he’d go ‘what’s that, what do you mean you can’t kiss when you have chemotherapy, what’s that about?’ Then I’d go away and start unpacking that story, going back through my memories. There have been moments when I’ve gone ‘I don’t want to talk about that’ a lot of the time those decisions have come down to the fact that I’m doing a show about a difficult subject matter and hard to listen to for a lot of people and I think when those hard things come up as a mark of respect to the people who are dying from this I have to tell the honest truth. To make the play honest and true, I have to go to those dark places but it seems worth it from the responses we’re getting.
What’s the one thing you’d like audiences to take away from The Eulogy of Toby Peach?
The H word – I’d say it’s hope. It’s such a difficult word to say but it’s one that we have to start trying to talk about when we’re talking about cancer. It’s the thing that helps patients that are going through it but it also helps patients that have had it and are trying to look ahead in their lives. One of the hardest things is for young patients that come through it, the darkest time is when we’ve come through it and out the other side into this world that has changed forever because of what we’ve experienced and we have to find ways of supporting people through that. Hope is the word that is so tricky to say but so important.
The Eulogy of Toby Peach runs at The VAULT Festival 17 – 21 February 2016 followed by a UK Tour
For more information visit www.tobypeach.co.uk/eulogy