Bryony Kimmings has never written a musical. She’s been a seven-day drunk, a ‘credible likeable superstar role-model’ and has retraced her real life sexual footsteps, all on stage. Until now, however, she’s never written a musical.
A Pacifist’s Guide to The War on Cancer is, then, an experiment. It marries acclaimed and accomplished performance artist Bryony Kimmings with good friend Brian Lobel, whose practice is heavily informed by his own experience of illness. Producer Judith Dimant specifically wanted a show about cancer and Kimmings agreed as it “would be the next stage in [her] practice”.
Kimmings professes to “hate musicals”, despite having adored their camp in her childhood. Lobel, on the other hand, loves the form. It is a recipe for a very exciting disaster.
The play opens with a voiceover from Kimmings. She’s pondering how best to get us ‘into’ a musical about cancer. Who would we engage with best? How can she pull our heartstrings? She creates Emma, a (white, upper-middle-class, thirty-something) single mum whose newborn baby has shown some abnormalities.
Emma journeys through tests and waiting rooms and into the Kingdom of the Sick, a glitter-garish nightmare of a place where cancer grows before our very eyes. A herd of tributary characters share their stories – as all theatre featuring waiting rooms would have us believe is the case – but be it disco diva or bald man’s ballad Emma is all consumed by her own son’s potential illness.
After the interval things get weird – and quickly. Piercingly loud sound design, the abrupt introduction (and exit) of foley artists and a truly bewildering Wiccan ritual involving formula milk barrage the audience. Voiceover Kimmings goes on to reveal that each character on stage is, in fact, a real human and tells us a little of their story.
Emma slips away and actress Amanda navigates a recorded conversation about Kimmings unwell child. Someone affected by cancer is invited to join the stage and read a statement. Actors recount the names of those they know living – or with lives lost – to cancer. The audience is asked to share names of their own. The pursuant cacophony of names and histories is heart-breaking, hyper-real, over-indulgent, transcendent and, most of all, decidedly un-British.
As a whole, it is a confusing but cathartic experience. The first act feels very much like Lobel and composer Tom Parkinson trying to convince Kimmings of musicals’ merit and methods, introducing us to a “sympathetic central character” “embarking on a journey” alongside a “host of zany supporting characters”. Cleverly it sets a tone where almost everything can be read as either sarcastic pastiche and ridicule or as genuine artistic output.
Is Laura’s disco transformation a scoffing or salute to musical theatre heritage? Could it – like Kimmings’s adoration and distaste – be both?
Act Two is the bite back. It’s almost as if Kimmings remembers her practice and forgets she’s writing a musical. It is Kimming’s at her best, which – to no surprise – is extracted from introspection and self-involvement. Kimmings’s work is her life and her life her work. To have (shabbily) created a fictional narrative structure, ticking the boxes of play making, seems not only illogical but inauthentic. An audience most definitely needs something to get them to the same-time elevation and sublimation that allows the ending experience but there’s definitely something “more Kimmings” – in style and quality – that could’ve been explored.
It’s a frustrating, often mis-asked question but: why did this have to be a musical? The second act features just two songs and overall the piece barely touches the sides let alone stretches the form.
The searing, spiky and sold-out Adding Machine: The Musical at the Finborough Theatre, for example, demonstrated much greater innovation in less space with far fewer resources.
Parkinson’s music is functional if a little flimsy and Kimmings provides amusing ditties for a twenty-first century audience obsessed with gifs and memes rather than complex lyrics. There is ample talent in the diverse and devoted cast, particularly Naana Agyei-Ampadu and Gary Wood whose
‘Mother Gone’ almost achieves the emotionalism musical theatre aficionados take for granted.
There is commendation due to Kimmings and Lobel’s creation. After all, which other performance artists are ‘developing their practice’ with a full scale musical at the National?
The piece stimulates debate on a thorny topic and may prove interesting as research as practice however it stumbles significantly as a cohesive piece of theatre. In a fight between a tried/tired and tested first act and a visionary/exploitative second – no winner, but two questions emerge.
Two questions that are two sides of the same coin: why is this a musical and where is the dramaturg?