DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer – Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Writers: Bryony Kimmings, Brian Lobel and Kirsty Housley

Director: Kirsty Hously

Music: Tom Parkinson

Reviewer: Anna Ambelez

When producer of the multi-award winning company Complicite’s, Judith Dimant (MBE) asked Bryony Kimmings to write a new show, she had just been diagnosed with cancer; Kimmings suggested cancer as the subject and neither could have known the journey it would take them on, a baptism of fire.

Kimmings, as the narrator begins by introducing herself, giving some background to the conception of the show. The songs are also informational, saying something clearer than plain text, with titles like Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick. The five main characters are soon established, all based on real people; four actors (Eva Alexander, Gemma Storr, Lottie Vallis and Elexi Walker) play many parts while the fifth person, Lara Veitch, not an actor, very bravely plays herself. Veitch is one of only 100 people in the world who has Li Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS), having no tumour suppressant and has had cancer six times; mind-blowing, a bit like the show.

Originally shown at HOME, Manchester in 2016 and the National Theatre, this is a revived, reworked shorter version and the concentrated 100 minutes serve to heighten its message. Co-writer Lobel brought a personal insight having had testicular cancer. Kimmings says ”This musical began as a seed in 2014…….A four-year labour of Love”. Tackling such a subject for a stage production has to be commended; it also takes you on Kimmings personal trauma over the four years, with the health scare of her young son.

While tinged with some humour it is harrowing; a huge learning experience and massive wake up call. The show is based on taped interviews with actual patients and this truth shines through. Kimmings spoke with one of the world’s experts, Dr Kathryn Mannix from the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle which continues to make great progress in the successful treatment of various cancers. After a performance at Coventry, the show is to tour Australia.

It is difficult to avoid words so commonly associated with cancer: fight, struggle, bravery, battle, and this is one aim Kimmings is trying to achieve, avoiding the use of warlike vocabulary, hence the title, “A Pacifist’s Guide…..”. The show finishes with an invite to the audience to share their experiences, calling out names of patients they know, which produces an electrically charged, emotional atmosphere. An 88-year-old cancer patient from South Shields, Tony movingly recounted his own tragic story but ended by saying “ I’m glad to be here”, and that is the best message one must take, be glad to be here.

Touring nationwide | Image: Mark Douet

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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