Bryony Kimmings’ and Complicites’ enjoyable new musical arrives at the National, but comes dangerously close to biting off more than it can chew.
Contemporary musical theatre is an art form that too often gets a bad reputation for being mundane and unimaginative. It doesn’t take an expert to formulate why this might be- a quick glance at the glossy exterior of the West End in 2016 and it’s clear to see that Theatreland has become over-saturated with outdated revivals, tacky jukebox musicals, and diluted screen to stage adaptions.This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can become laborious to sit through yet another extravagant adaption of a Roald Dahl novel.
You could imagine the excitement then when the brand new original musical A Pacifist’s Guide to The War on Cancer opened at the National Theatre in the Dorfman auditorium. The show, which is a self-described “all-singing, all dancing examination of life with a cancer diagnosis” is a co-production between performance artist Bryony Kimmings and the ground-breaking theatre company Complicite. Marketed as a piece that aims to ask the tough questions about “the big C” that no one wants to talk about, and examine the effects it has on people’s lives, the main subject material that the show grapples with is one that perhaps does not mould well with the form in which it is to be presented. Who wants to watch a musical about cancer? As a paying audience member of the National Theatre, how am I supposed to react to this? It is a frightening but exciting prospect, and most theatre-goers are at least intrigued to want to find out more.
The company of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer. Photo Credit: The National Theatre.
The show is introduced by Kimmings herself in the form of a voice-over. She talks about how she wanted to write a musical that forced us to talk about the tough issue of cancer, and how important it was that society as a whole confronted the disease. Although this is obviously admirable, the addition of the voice-over becomes a problematic tool that is used too often throughout the performance. It often felt like Kimmings only employed the use of the voice-over to clear up any criticism that an audience member might have of the performance. It felt almost authoritarian, and it seemed like Kimmings used it to explain what her artistic vision was, rather than let her audience try to figure it out for themselves. Aside from this feeling like it was an insult to our intelligence, it just didn’t work. At one point, when the voice-over is utilised to talk directly to the actors on stage, it feels completely stagnated and motionless- an effect that slows down the pace of the piece and makes the musical feel disjointed and incoherent.
The main action of the story centres around single mother Emily, who has brought her baby son Owen into hospital for a number of scans. As she waits for her son to be returned to her, we get to meet a diverse range of patients all suffering from some form of the killer disease, each with their own individual story to tell. These characters (such as Laura, the middle aged woman suffering with ovarian cancer and Mark, a chain smoker diagnosed with lung cancer who yearns for a second chance with his daughter) are instantly more accessible and endearing than the main character.
The biggest problem with the book of this musical (written by Kimmings and Brian Lobel) is that there is simply too much plot and not enough time. The moments that we get to spend with the patients, while often brilliant, are way too fleeting. Although Amanda Hadingue gives a lovely performance, the character of Emily fails to thrill- she is incessantly whiny and tiresome, and a lot of time is wasted in trying to get people to sympathise with her. It is admirable that the creators of this show want to tell the stories of a wide array of personal experiences with cancer, but the result is less than commendable. A more even delegation of time devoted to different characters would immensely improve the show- especially because most of the writer’s eggs seem to be placed in a very Emily- shaped basket. Luckily, Tom Parkinson’s music strings the show along nicely, and it never feels out of place. There are some exceptional vocal performances in the show- most notably from Naana Agyei- Ampadu who plays Gia, and Gary Wood, who plays Stephen.
Of course, A Pacifists Guide is not necessarily the first musical to talk about and address illness. Rent, a 1990’s Jonathan Larson rock musical about the AIDS epidemic in New York City at the turn of the millennium, was a musical that dominated Broadway for a long time and was one that seeped into the American mainstream psyche as a result. In a slightly different vein, Next to Normal, the 2007 Tony Award- winning musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, tells the story of a woman battling with her worsening bi-polar disease after the sudden death of her son. Clearly, there have been other musicals that have engaged in a dialogue around the topic of illness. The success of both of these shows can be found in their modesty. They were created to simply tell a story. It is at this point that I believe that A Pacifist’s Guide gets it wrong.
In the latter half of the second act, when it is revealed that the characters we have grown to love in the musical are based on real people, the fourth wall is immediately broken and the musical quickly spirals into a sentimental orgy of emotional sensationalism. Kimmings, who probably had the greatest of intentions, leads the audience through the range of emotions she thinks they should be feeling, instead of just letting us experience it for ourselves. The final result is something that feels quite contrived and manufactured, and comes dangerously close to feeling very self- congratulatory.
I left the theatre at the end of the performance feeling an amalgamation of emotions that I still haven’t quite processed, but perhaps that was the point. A Pacifist’s Guide to The War on Cancer is by no means a perfect musical, but no one can deny it is brave in its questioning about a subject that most people tend to avoid. For that, I commend it.