Malthouse Presents A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

The incredibly moving, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, reaches all extremes of the emotional spectrum.

By Joana Simmons 

‘The C word’ can be a touchy subject, so people talk around it often referring to it as a battle or war. British theatre company, Complicité team up with Bryony Kimmings in this world-class production, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, to present cancer through a different lens: a real one, a feminist one, a funny one, and a musical. The show tells the story of Kimmings in the process of writing a guide for patients and the people around them. This guide makes space for cancer not to be seen as a heroic battle and celebration of survival, but rather the scary, lonely and painful thing it is.

Performed by an all singing female cast, this musical is the kind of show where you remain seated after it ends, knowing it has got right under your skin as you begin to process it. While I dried my tears, I wondered how to write a review that would do this show justice.

Kimmings is the narrator of the story and her humorous manner makes us feel like she’s having a chat over a cuppa, instead she’s on top of a scaffold addressing an audience. We hear voice overs of interviews conducted with patients, doctors, psychologists and researches, who are also acted out by the cast. From this point in the production, I got goose bumps every five minutes.

_A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer by Complicite. Photo by Mark Douet _80A3951_preview
Photographs: Mark Douet

Lara Veitch is introduced as the oracle who changes Bryony’s perspective completely. Lara and Bryony recount the lessons they learned from each other, and how their friendship blossomed in a way that gets into our hearts because it’s both funny, sad and entirely true. The show shifts in mood when Lara describes the shocked comments and stares she continues to receive after refusing to have reconstructive surgery post a double mastectomy. She describes the pressure female patients have to ‘stay sexy’ through treatment.

Rock-chick power anthems frequent the show with a stand out number sung by the captivating Elexi Walker, with multi-instrumentalist Gemma Storr on lead guitar, Eva Alexander on bass and Lottie Vallis on synth. Another memorable moment involved an audience member sharing their story of cancer, and the audience – many of whom were sobbing – was then invited to join the cast in naming the people close to them who have been affected by this group of diseases. As Kimmings said, it’s “definitely not like Netflix” and I think it is so remarkable that we were able to share our grief.  It is an experience I will never forget.

This production is the brainchild of many brilliant minds who have banded together to make this an aesthetically and audibly bold musical. It was co-written by Kirsty Housley, Brian Lobel and Bryony Kimmings with Kirsty Housley also directing. Music and sound design by Tom Parkinson and Lewis Gibson respectively got the message across, especially the deafening sound of the MRI. Unfortunately, I could not hear some of the lyrics in the songs, which was largely disappointing. Lucy Osborne’s sparkly costumes and set adorned the stage, transforming it from place to place wonderfully while illuminated by Marec Joyce’s lighting design. By the end of the show, the stage was trashed, as if to be a visual metaphor for how one’s world can be turned upside down.

Theatre is a powerful medium that can make us laugh, cry, get mad, feel inspired and feel connected to something outside ourselves. A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer achieves all of these things. It is like nothing I have seen before, and I will always remember with awe that I was able to experience such a moving production. Buy yourself a ticket to this show that is not only a night out but also an opportunity to grow.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer plays at Malthouse until 18 March.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.