You might assume a playwright had penned original and upbeat, whip-smart tunes for a colourful musical about cancer as succour for those facing illness.
That may be so, yet when traumatised by her own baby son’s rare disease diagnosis, Bryony Kimmings’ instinct was to turn away from music.
In creating A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, the British artist aims to entertain her audience, make them laugh, unite and have their own experiences heard while feeling less scared about entering the “kingdom of the sick”.
The show is awash with fun pop and electronica, with harmonic rock and ballads spreading cheer, camaraderie and a little irony.
But Kimmings’ initial response was distinctly non-musical when her six-month-old son Frank was diagnosed with an epilepsy disorder, West Syndrome, which “wiped” his development.
“You know, when something bad is happening, I can’t listen to music,” says Kimmings during a rehearsal break in Melbourne, preparing for the musical’s next stop at Sydney’s Seymour Centre.
“I just find it too emotional. I have to switch off the record; I can’t hear noise. I don’t like the television or the radio being on.”
This journalist enjoyed the original version of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, staged in 2016 at London’s National Theatre. With 18 female and male cast members, the show was a colourful riot, with some performers dressed as candy-like blobulous cancer cells, surrounding actress Amanda Hadingue, playing a woman called Emma – a character based on Kimmings – who has a child diagnosed with cancer.
The musical had been initially inspired by a headscarf that UK company Complicité’s commissioning producer Judith Dimant was wearing during her own cancer therapy, which Kimmings enquired about when pitching show ideas.
“She’s good now,” says Kimmings of Dimant. “She’s on Tamoxifen, which she’ll be on forever, but she’s in remission.”
The show makes fun of dark matter while placing firmly in its sights the platitudes applied by the well-meaning well to the ill: the laudatory clichés about their disease, the “battle”, the “struggle”, and “putting on a brave face”.
Yet Kimmings, whose memory of that original staging in 2016 became blurred by her experience with baby Frank’s simultaneous hospitalisation in real life, was unhappy with that first effort.
Last year she slashed and rewrote the work and music, keeping a handful of the original songs and reducing the cast to six, now all women because she had mostly gathered women’s cancer stories during the research phase.
“I didn’t like the first show,” Kimmings says candidly. “I didn’t love it. I was still visiting my son in hospital, every night. To be honest, it was like: I need to make this show because the Dorfman [one of the National Theatre’s venues] needs it in its space and everybody’s relying on me to direct it and it all just – it was fine, I liked the second act a lot. I didn’t like the first act. Didn’t like [other] sections.” The third act remains little changed, she says.
“[But] I was in such trauma I can’t even remember going to work. Like I was hovering out of my own body.”
Frank is now two-and-a-half. “He’s got disabilities but he’s not immediately ill. He’s well, yes, he’s developing – very delayed, global development delay, they call it – I mean, they don’t really know what the disability is until they get older. But yes, he’s cool, man. He loves music, he loves dancing – those are my two favourite things; he’s like my dream child.”
As Frank’s condition improved, Kimmings began listening to music again, becoming obsessed with several albums: Australian electronic band Cut Copy’s first long-play, Bright Like Neon Love, as well as the latest albums by rapper Drake, synth-pop artist Grimes, and folk duo First Aid Kit.
She has also joined the cast of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, playing herself gathering real-life stories to dramatise for the show, and telling the real story of her son.
Kimmings does not sing, however, leaving those duties to the other five members of the new all-female cast, including her younger sister, Lottie Vallis – the only actor to transfer from the original production – who mostly play characters facing cancer, and who form a rock band.
“I’m singing in my next show and I wrote the music, but, I don’t know,” Kimmings laughs, “obviously, I didn’t feel right singing.”
Kimmings has also made the portrayal of cancer experiences more realistic by having Lara Veitch, whom she met during her research, playing herself.
Veitch, 28, has had six cancers in her lifetime due to a rare, inherited genetic condition, Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS). She has faced cancers of the bone, breast, soft-cell tissue sarcoma and tumours in her liver and kidney.
Veitch’s mother had died of cancer aged 27. “We’ll never know, but it’s very likely she had the condition, too, she died so young,” says Veitch, who was part of the last week of the original musical’s run in London, coming on stage at the end to discuss her experiences.
In this revised version, the story of her meeting Kimmings is threaded through the musical, and Veitch joins in singing a couple of songs.
Having an all-female cast may have been about the practicality of concentrating on the strengths of the research, but the single-gender characters now lend the musical to stronger feminist readings.
For example, Veitch says she faced uncomfortable judgements from people when she decided to have a double mastectomy.
“I didn’t have reconstruction and the reaction I got from the world around me was quite shocking,” she says. “Everyone told me I was wrong; I needed to have reconstructive surgery because I was young. Even after I had the [double mastectomy], people were like, ‘Oh, you can change you mind later, can’t you?’”
Why do people react that way: are they thinking of what they might do in her situation?
“I think so. I felt very much like people were projecting their own insecurities onto me. It’s just the way society is, isn’t it? You’re fed that. Boobs are what make you a woman. It’s mad. Everyone was very opinionated; I think it’s just ingrained in people, that they couldn’t imagine themselves doing that.”
Veitch has written a wonderful seven-point list (published on the Malthouse Theatre’s website) about how to be when a good friend has cancer, including the reassurance not to worry about saying the wrong thing.
Music has also helped Veitch who, incidentally, still doesn’t see herself as an actor. “Music supports emotions and feelings. It feels quite expressive in a way that talking doesn’t, she says. “Music has helped me zone out during treatment, and takes me to another place.”
She says she uses reggae to transport herself mentally to a beach: Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley in particular.
The long haul travel from the UK to Australia was difficult, Veitch admits, but worth it to tell her story on stage in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.
How is her health now? “It’s good at the moment. Currently no cancers going on, I don’t think. I’ve got chronic pain from the treatment I had from bone cancer. That needs constant managing, but I’m able to perform in a play and tour the world with it, so that’s all right.”
Australian and US research last year concluded whole-body MRI screening could detect primary cancers in people with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome at an early and curable stage. After Veitch was diagnosed with LFS, and knowing it was so rare, she felt “very unsafe” about her future, and decided to arm herself with knowledge, enrolling in a university course of anatomy and developmental human biology, mainly cancer biology and genetics.
“It helped me to understand what was going on, and gave me the tools to read and understand research. I only got proton beam therapy because I did research into it and understood it would be beneficial to me. So I pushed for it, and it’s helped me very much. My doctors didn’t think I’d get funding for it, but I persuaded them to try anyway, and I did get the funding.”
One aspect Kimmings has kept in the play is encouraging audience members to name loved ones afflicted by or lost to cancer at the end of the show.
Critics were not always so sure of this aspect. In The Guardian, reviewer Michael Billington welcomed the candour in the musical for boldly demystifying the disease, but complained about the finale: “I felt I was attending a secular revivalist meeting.”
Kimmings however is determined to ensure audience participation remains a key weapon in the pacifist’s armour.