Review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

Cancer.

It’s a scary word, you shouldn’t say it – mustn’t put a dampener on the conversation.

It certainly isn’t anyone’s first choice for a musical topic.

But isn’t that strange? For an illness that affects everyone on various scales, it’s so rarely spoken about in a true and honest way. Whether it be your grandparent, your friend, your sibling or you, at least one name comes to mind when someone mentions cancer.

This is why Bryony Kimmings and Complicate decided to tackle it once and for all.

And thank goodness they did.

We follow Emma (Amanda Hadingue) who is taking her baby to the hospital for a check up after some concerning results. During her time there, she is dragged through the wacky Alice In Wonderland style world of the Kingdom of the Sick. To create the physical presence of cancer, she is introduced to all-singing, all-dancing cancer cells wearing colourful, sparkly padded bubbles, giving an almost tweedle-dum, tweedle-dee vibe. They tend to lurk around and follow the cancer patients throughout. Various shaped air bags burst through the hospital doors as the show progresses, until the whole stage is taken up by monstrous cancer cells, suffocating the lives of those affected.

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Amy Booth-Steel as a cancer cell (Sourced from BakChromeeBoy blog)

Emma meets a variety of cancer patients during her stay, all going through a smorgasbord of emotions. Laura (Golda Rosheuvel) is in denial about her terminal cancer, stripping off to a reveal a sparkly catsuit and singing a disco number; Rosheuvel plays her with such strength and enthusiasm that you can’t help but admire her stubborn nature. Shannon (Rose Shalloo) is another stand-out character who is waiting to find out whether her unborn child carries her cancerous gene; her head is firmly on her shoulders and she is fearless when she sings her ballad Peace of Mind.

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Some of the cast members including Emma (Amanda Hadingue) and Gia (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) sourced from The Guardian.

But this show doesn’t dwell on the tragic moments; it grabs cancer by the balls through humour and anger. The ensemble song Fuck This is by far a highlight as they boldly reject society’s dictatorship over their emotions; the expectation to remain positive is slammed down, they embrace their rage and it’s beautifully enlightening. This song is led by Gia (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), a passionate, black American woman who serves as the young, feminist voice of the group; her voice is outstanding.

Admittedly, it needs a bit of tightening in parts and some ideas could be explored in a different way. For example, Mark (Hal Fowler), a lung cancer patient still very much attached to his cigarettes is a challenging character to come to terms with. Within the time given, he perhaps required some more development to aid our understanding of his story.

Nevertheless, it’s confrontational, funny and heartbreaking; near the end the fourth wall is broken and the actors begin to reveal their characters as real people. The audience are then invited to speak the name of someone they know who has been affected by cancer. The whole room murmurs for a good two minutes and it’s one of the most powerful and solidifying moments I’ve ever encountered. I’m not quite brave enough to speak the name I have in mind, but it’s there in the room and I feel a sense of peace.

I leave feeling raw, but enlightened. At first, I wasn’t sure I could face a show about a topic so close to my heart, but it truly exceeded my expectations. Theatre is there to entertain and challenge, and Complicate certainly achieved this.

If you liked this then please do subscribe to my blog and give me a follow @tesshenderson94 Check out my previous review on a play about the infamous Beastie Boys… Licensed to Ill.

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Review: The Solid Life of Sugar Water

As I walked into the Birmingham Repertory theatre space, I was struck by the highly contemporary, abstract, and frankly – relatable setting.

Up against the wall was a bedroom scene; two actors were stood up, asleep in the bed. They were surrounded by clothes, a pair of converses, an over-flowing laundry basket and phone chargers. Almost at once, you could see that the set portrayed a typical twenty-something’s room; to me, I saw my own bedroom. I really appreciated the attention to detail; from the lip balm on the bedside table to the lighting streaming through the door and the blinds. It wasn’t like your regular ‘bedsit’ setting. Instead we were looking at it from a birds-eye view, peering into something real; something intriguingly authentic.

This set the scene perfectly for what was to come; Jack Thorne’s incredibly intelligent and raw script throws us into a sexual encounter between our protagonists, Alice and Phil. The audience smile and chuckle in an almost understanding way as the couple speak their inner thoughts about this rather ritualistic activity:

PHIL: I trace her – graze her – inner thigh with just the edge of my – edge of my fingers.

ALICE: He always fucks around a bit.

Immediately, Phil and Alice became relatable. Their honest dialogue and their personalities shone within moments. What made their performance even more real was that they were both actors with disabilities. The theatre company, Graeae aims to create more opportunities for disabled artists; integrating sign language, audio description and captioning into theatre. Alice was played by Genevieve Barr, a deaf actress, and Phil was played by Arthur Hughes, an actor with a physical disability.

We follow them as they jump backwards and forwards through their relationship; from an awkward, yet hilarious first meeting in a post office, to their first sexual encounter together. We become emotionally invested in their relationship. Yet, hints are dropped throughout towards something very painful that they later share together.

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Genevieve Barr as Alice and Arthur Hughes as Phil. Sourced from The Times Online.

We discover that Alice is pregnant, but the baby has not survived. They then have to go through the heart-breaking realisation that Alice will have to go through labour anyway. The ‘labour’ scene is possibly one of the most grotesquely poetic moments in the whole piece; both actors lie on the bed together, but are completely separate in their headspaces. Alice is in the middle of labour, while Phil is recalling a graphic sex scene between them. The clash of these two situations is uncomfortable to watch, yet extremely compelling; you have no idea what to feel. You see the transition from extreme pleasure to extreme pain before your eyes. This moment was exceptionally directed by Amit Sharma; it must have been a very challenging scene to pull off, but it was done just right.

Ultimately though, you can see and feel this undertone of love between them. It’s not perfect or idealised because true love never is, and that’s what I appreciated most about this play. To me, this play encapsulated everything I feel about modern relationships; it was truthful, raw, funny and painful.

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Barr and Hughes. Sourced from Hulltruck.co.uk

The writing alone has that spoken-word feel about it; it truly is a shockingly beautiful piece. I liked it so much I bought the play script on my way out! I highly recommend going to see it if you can – it was well worth my trip from Bristol on the Megabus!

Review: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Walking into the Tobacco Factory Theatre space, we see a dimly lit stage with a gravel-like flooring.

This barren, empty space sets the scene perfectly; as what we are about to see is something so tragic and heart-wrenching that you feel completely hollow when you leave.

A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing is a 90 minute monologue, adapted from the novel by Eimear McBride which

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Aoife Duffin. Sourced from Bristol 24/7 website.

peers into the life of a poor Irish Catholic family. Already, you can probably gather that the story is far from jolly. With Irish stories such as The Magdalene Sisters which explores the corruptive Catholic Church and the complete disrespect for women as they are seen as sexual objects, (I unfortunately watched that film alone and was thus left in an emotional bottom-less pit of moroseness), you can guess what sort of direction this play will take.

Nonetheless, this monologue was flawlessly performed by Aoife Duffin, who captured our attention from the very beginning with her melodic Irish accent. She is plainly dressed; wearing only a baggy top and bottoms, which provides a neutral canvas for the various characters she performs.

Her physical ability to switch from one character to the next is incredible; you can practically see the scene unfold in front of you. We are moved seamlessly through this hard-hitting story, lulled by the beautifully poetic script written by Annie Ryan.

We never discover the girl’s name; which indicates the lack of feminine identity within this bubble of society; she truly is a half-formed thing. With a cold-hearted, god-fearing mother and a younger brother with cancer, the girl is shoved into the background, brought up in a household full of shame and hate.

By the age of 13, she is sexually abused by her uncle, which begins her sexual journey as a bleak and loveless downward spiral. She sees sex as a form of currency and self-harm; she is so accustomed to being treated as a sexual object, that she no longer sees herself as being anything else. When she discusses her various encounters with men, she speaks with a slow drawl, verbally communicating the way she is passed carelessly from man to man. Sex is an empty feeling for her; it means nothing.

The few sound effects throughout were simple, yet interesting. One sound that sticks in my mind in particular was something that sounded like rolling marbles, which made its way from one side of the theatre to the other, as if they were rolling around us. I believe this happened when her brother died, which to me indicates towards the saying ‘losing your marbles’; hinting towards the girl’s final tipping point.

Duffin’s performance is passionate and painful as she transforms into her little brother, fighting for his life, then her stern, hateful mother and then her weak, perverted uncle. You feel and see every emotion in every single character, and love and hate them all equally. This is what made this play so gritty; Duffin laid herself bare for a full 90 minutes, and all we could do was watch helplessly.

I must say that I got a little lost at the end. This is most likely because of the very challenging, emotional upheaval the play takes you through; by the end, you’re emotionally shattered.

Nonetheless, this was a one-woman play masterpiece. The spoken-word element to the script was not only engrossing, but emotionally charged, and Duffin was breath-taking. You could tell that she had put all of her energy into this piece.

This was a play that you wish you never had to see, but ultimately opens wounds and pushes boundaries.

Review: Dead Dog in a Suitcase (And Other Love Songs) Kneehigh.

Kneehigh’s wacky modern musical, Dead Dog In a Suitcase (And Other Love Songs) has returned to the Bristol Old Vic this year, and we’re delighted!

I went to watch it last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so was more than happy to go see it again. It’s a story of immorality, violence, power and money; I suppose in that sense you could liken it to Macbeth. In fact, it’s a re-vamped version of The Beggar’s Opera, a satirical musical by John Gay.

And a satirical musical ‘Dead Dog’ also proves to be; the play questions the human need for power through corruption, it challenges our political system and urges us to change our ways while putting the audience in stitches the whole time.

How the hell do they manage all that?

With a cracking cast, of course! There was a slightly different cast this year, but some of our favourites remained. What never fails to amaze me about this production is the actors’ musical abilities; if they’re not singing, they’re playing instruments in the background or playing kick-ass violin solos (Lucy Rivers: Widow Goodman). Ultimately, they are an amazing ensemble of performers.

But I do have a fond favourite; with her big presence, comic timing and

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Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum

hilarious one-liners, Mrs Peachum played by the wonderful Rina Fatania was back with a vengeance. Mrs Peachum is the Lady Macbeth we love to hate; she is the backbone to all the dodgy schemes as she plots to kill off Mayor Goodman so that her half-witted husband can take his place.

And of course we cannot forget the main compulsive villain and bad-boy, Macheath, played yet again by the talented Dominic Marsh. With his strong London accent, cockney swagger and charming demeanour, he exudes a Russell Brand appeal, which obviously impresses Polly, the Peachum’s innocent young daughter. Ah, the familiar bad-boy complex.

However, moving onto the new actors this year, the main newbie who stood out was most definitely Jack Shalloo who played Filch; his voice was to die for. In fact, I think they introduced a song especially for him this year, as I don’t recall Filch having a solo song before. Filch is a lovable character who provides the only source of hope in this otherwise bleak setting, and Shalloo does a great job in making him even more likeable with his beautiful, yet forlorn solo.

The Music.

Thanks to the composer Charles Hazlewood, it’s certainly a quirky mix of trip-hop and folk with the occasional rocky riff. The songs are very catchy, which is ideally what you want from a musical. My favourites, aside from Filch’s solo which I’ve already mentioned are as follows:

  1. Take Me Somewhere Far Away: Macheath and Polly Peachum.I would associate this song as being the most ‘musical-like’ with a beautiful melody (which I’ve had in my head all week!) and cracking harmonies. Angela Hardie who plays Polly has a lovely, pure, Maria-from-West-Side-Story-esque voice which contrasts nicely with the low raspy quality of Macheath’s.

 

  1. Ninja Butterfly: Lucy Lockit.A nice jazzy number which is later juxtaposed with a rocky-style reprise. We see the soft, vulnerable side of the pick-pocketing Lucy Lockit, then her jealous rage only shortly after; it’s brilliant. Although I must add, the actress who played her, Beverley Rudd had a very strong Northern accent, so I didn’t realise she was singing the word ‘butterfly’ for ages- doh.

 

  1. Money: Whole Ensemble.

Trip-hoppy, catchy beat. Enough said really.

 

  1. Mrs Peachum’s Cautionary Tales: Mrs Peachum.Possibly one of the funniest songs in the whole show. Mrs Peachum tries to tell Polly some home-truths in her sassy, no-nonsense way.

 

The Set/Props.

The set has a play-ground appeal to it, which leans toward the idea that corruption is simply a game; a way to get to the top. It’s put to great use as the actors swing from bars and enter scenes down the slide. Yet, it was made out of jagged and distressed-looking dark wood and the lighting was generally dim throughout. Thus, we are constantly reminded of the

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The Set.

dark elements of murder and greed that run through the play.

Another interesting element was the Punch and Judy show; a running theme during the course of the production. Yet again, it harks back to the theme of playfulness, but is tainted with the abusive and violent aspects Punch and Judy are associated with.

 

Verdict?

If you like quirky, satirical musical theatre then I totally recommend that you go and see this. I feel that especially after recent events, the message of this play resonates. It questions the system that we are under now and implores us to wipe the slate clean and try again; undo all the wrongs that we have made.

Controversial- but that’s what theatre is all about.