Cancer, on stage

I have a serious theatre habit. And the programmes I’ve collected, from pretty much every production I’ve seen over the past 50 years, tell stories of love, hate, war, peace. But I’ve only ever seen two plays in which cancer’s played a part: Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

But then, in one week, I got the chance to see two productions which put cancer centre stage.

Monday night: The Eulogy Of Toby Peach

This one-man, one-hour show is Toby Peach’s account of his diagnosis and treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He arrives onstage to deliver his eulogy: snapping selfies with the audience, whizzing through his pre-cancer backstory, counting down the minutes since his diagnosis, gazing at the photo when he first realised what he’d look like with no hair.

Toby's stage selfie: can you see me?
Toby’s stage selfie: can you see me?

We meet his girlfriend Kirsty, his consultant, some of the early pioneers of cancer research and treatment. We visit his hospital isolation room, the chemotherapy suite, the intensive care unit, the sperm bank – not necessarily in that order. Forced to confront his own mortality at the age of 19, Toby has to consider his fertility and any future Peaches.

As he takes us through Along the way he pulls back the curtain to enter the (not so) exclusive Cancer Club, quaffs chemotherapy cocktails, shuffles through the perfect funeral playlist, and marvels at the life-saving abilities of stem cell transplants.

Toby, accessorised with chemo cocktail and drip stand
Toby, accessorised with chemo cocktail and drip stand

For anyone who’s been through treatment (and one in two of us will receive a diagnosis, says Toby), the show hurtles along making the audience shiver with recognition, gasp in wonder, and laugh at the absurdity. This performance is a fundraiser for Bloodwise, the UK’s specialist blood cancer charity, and, judging by the nods of recognition at Toby’s material, plenty of us have first-hand knowledge of the journey he’s made.

Toby nails the fear of being alone, at night, in a hospital room, the drug-crazed intimacy with I-Vie (my spelling), the sleaze and seediness of The Cancer Club host – always ready with another confection. After diagnosis and chemotherapy, Toby moved into remission. But he relapsed and underwent what became a far-from-straightforward stem cell transplant.

The patient patient
The patient patient

It’s an honest, passionate, and affecting show. When I was in early remission, I thought I had a little-known side effect of chemotherapy: an inability to laugh. I wanted to laugh – big, rolling, belly laughs. With tears. Toby’s show reminded me how much I’d missed the laughs then and how often I laugh now.

Toby finishes the show by reminding us of the support available from Bloodwise, and says he’ll be in the bar if anyone wants to chat. It’s a generous offer, considering he’s spent the past hour sharing his story and revisiting memories. As we leave the theatre, more than few people head to the bar to take up Toby’s offer.

 

Tuesday night: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

Described on the National Theatre’s website as ‘An all-singing, all-dancing examination of life with a cancer diagnosis’, I’ll admit I was curious how song and dance could add to my experience and understanding of cancer.

Commissioned by Complicite, the show’s writer/director is Bryony Kimmings, better known for her heavily autobiographical solo and two-person shows. The inspiration for this show came from Complicite producer Judith Dimant’s personal experience of cancer, together with Bryony’s own experience of dealing with her young son’s illness. And the show is based on the experiences of real people, whose voices we hear during the evening.

A cancer cell Credit: Mark Douet
A cancer cell
Credit: Mark Douet

Here’s a woman struggling to make sense of the Kingdom of the Sick when she brings her young child for treatment. There’s a man with lung cancer, removing his oxygen mask to puff on a cigarette. Here’s a woman with ovarian cancer, running out of treatment options and considering hospice care. There’s a pregnant young woman with a rare genetic cancer, wondering about the risks for her unborn child. Here’s a young man with testicular cancer, being urged to bank his sperm and trying to avoid telling his employer about his health.

The Kingdom of the Sick has its own language and geography – a friendly cleaner explains how to navigate the hospital corridors to reach the oncology clinic, people in the waiting room demonstrate the ‘cancer face’, everyone wears a hospital gown stamped with ‘hospital property’. And then there’s the new companions: cancer cells. The cells dance across the stage, a bit like glittering Teletubbies, while inflatable tumours emerge and swell from the walls and doors, crowding and pushing the performers.

A second cancer cell Credit: Mark Douet
A second cancer cell
Credit: Mark Douet

The songs drive the show along, moving through a range of genres: funky Miracle, punky Fuck This, torch song Silly Girl. And the soundscape makes good use of medical equipment: beeps from chemotherapy pumps, screeches from an MRI scan. Then there’s the moment a doctor, delivering difficult news, seems to be speaking underwater.

In a voiceover at the end of the show, Bryony strikes up a conversation with the only performer left on the stage. Bryony explains the show is about tackling our collective reticence to talk about death and disease. And that’s where I have a problem with the show, because that’s not my experience. I’m happy to talk about death and disease but I also want to talk about life beyond treatment – because that’s the conversation that isn’t being had.

Hospital property Credit: Mark Douet
Hospital property
Credit: Mark Douet

As the lights come up, the performers come onstage, out of costume and out of character, and we hear the real voices of the people whose experiences and stories have been shared. We’re encouraged to call out the names of people we know who are affected by cancer. Names are called out and I glance around the audience. There are tears rolling down people’s faces. A woman, doubled over and her shoulders shaking, is comforted by people in the rows around her. Outside the theatre, a woman sobs in the arms of a man.

Tucked away in the programme is a reference to the Macmillan Cancer Support helpline and Maggie’s Centres. I hope the people affected by the show found the help they needed.

 

Plays about cancer

A quick online search turned up these plays about cancer. If you know of any others. Please let me know.

Julia Darling – Eating the Elephant

Margaret Edson – Wit

Tracy Letts – August: Osage County

Louise Page – Tissue

Tennessee Williams – Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

 

The Eulogy of Toby Peach. Criterion Theatre. 24 October 2016

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer. National Theatre. 25 October 2016

Cost: £2 (Criterion Theatre) £25 (National Theatre)