Left – Elexi Walker, Lottie Vallis and Eva Alexander. Cover – Bryony Kimmings. Photos – Mark Douet
Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer has more tendrils than the malignant cells that are the source of the title.
A musical about cancer is a brave objective, and bravery is at the heart of this production. However, the music is only one frond and not a very successful one, with the exception of one haunting song by Lara Veitch (not an actor but a cancer survivor).
Narration, soliloquies, ensemble performances, a cancer survivor telling her own story, and then the final breaking of the fourth wall with an audience member called up to share his experience. This is an eclectic, disjointed production. Black comedy doesn’t even begin to describe this disparate production directed by Kirsty Housley.
Confronting yes, co-hesive no. And yet it is mostly engaging and never boring.
Writer Kimmings starts the show at the Malthouse Theatre with a disarming and humorous account of its origins. A connection is formed and the audience is captivated, wanting to know more about how this one-woman tour de force is going to expound on a usually scary subject. Kimmings grabs it by throat and an ensemble launches into musical numbers which are jarring. What follows are highs and lows. Kimmings says that more than 50 patients, doctors and cancer care experts were interviewed to make A Pacifist’s Guide. She selects a handful to convey the basics about the discovery of a cancer diagnosis and what follows.
The ensemble – Elexi Walker, Lottie Vallis, Gemma Storr and Eva Alexander – cleverly work with Kimmings to portray experiences which are likely to affect 1 in 2 Australians by their 85th birthday. (The Australian Government website cites in 2017 it was estimated that the risk of an individual being diagnosed with cancer by their 85th birthday will be 1 in 2 (1 in 2 males and 1 in 2 females).
Lara Veitch is then introduced with a fanfare. Veitch is a young woman who has a rare disease that lowers her defences against cancer forming cells and therefore results in life-long bouts of cancer. Along with Kimmings, Veitch becomes an integral part of the production.
A Pacifist’s Guide then takes a more dramatic twist and then twists again as the subject of death is tackled with a recording from a doctor who has encountered more than 10,000 deaths.
The finale is the breaking of the fourth wall as Kimmings and Veitch directly acknowledge the audience and invite one member to share his story, and then ask audience members to acknowledge loved ones who has died from cancer.
The production is courageous tackling a painful and frightening phenomenon. Those who have or have had cancer are likely to identify. Those who have loved ones at risk are given useful advice in a kind and humorous fashion. Nevertheless this production is also not for the feint-hearted and needs better continuity.
Anger, sadness, and fear are explored and positivity is somehow side-lined because it is a guide that is trying to allow cancer to be hard, painful, lonely and “shit”. Stop fighting and feel seems to be the message of this show. However positivity and hope are useful weapons and a fight can be fuelled by strong feelings. Some facts and figures could be revealed at the end such as 68% of people diagnosed with cancer in Australia are still alive five years after a cancer diagnosis. Neverthless this show seems to be aimed at the percentage who don’t make it and their loved ones. Kimmings’ hope is that The Pacifists Guide “goes out into the world and changes others”. The audience seems right behind her in this hope as she receives a standing ovation.
Malthouse Theatre presents Complicite Associates
A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer
by Bryony Kimmings
Director Kirsty Housley
Venue: Malthouse Theatre | 113 Sturt Street Southbank VIC
Dates: 7 – 18 March 2018
Bookings: (03) 9685 5111 | malthousetheatre.com.au