A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer - Complicite

Bryony Kimmings on A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

Posted on 4 February 2018

Following an acclaimed debut in 2016, *Bryony Kimmings*’ innovative musical A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer returns to the stage this year, fully reimagined for a brand new whistle-stop tour arriving at the Belgrade Theatre this month.

Presented by Complicité Associates in partnership with the National Theatre, this bold production will blow everything you think you know about cancer out of the water, opening up candid conversations about the messy, sometimes funny and often devastating reality of living with long-term illness. Behind the poster campaigns and pink ribbons, Kimmings uncovers newfound friendships, pain and death, mundane treatment cycles, hairlessness and scars, combining real-life stories with an original score.

Running at the Belgrade 14-17 February, the show will take in just three UK venues this year before heading out to Australia. Here, its performance artist Bryony Kimmings explains more about her creative process.

Tell us a bit about the story behind A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer.

Basically it’s the story of making this show, the story of trying to make a guide. I went into it barely knowing anything like, “I’ll make a show about cancer. How hard can it be?” And then I go into this world which is the darkest, scariest, most tragic and also the most badly represented disease that we have.

Then I meet this girl who’s the opposite of me – I’m just this idiot bumbling around, but she’s so peaceful and full of wisdom – and I manage to persuade her to help me write this guide imagining what it’s like to have cancer. But then halfway through my son gets ill and she gets ill and everything gets disrupted. Because it’s one thing to write about cancer hypothetically, but oh my God, when you’re in the middle of the Kingdom of the Sick, you have no idea how to even breathe!

This is the second time you’ve toured the show. What’s new this time round?

When I was originally writing the show, my son Frank was very ill in hospital, so about halfway through the process I sort of bowed out. Normally my instinct is to always put myself in the shows I write and tell the truth about what happened, but because I was going through this massive trauma, I ended up basically fictionalising myself through this weird voice-over.

At the same time, my friend Lara also got really ill. Lara is the most extreme cancer patient I worked with for this show, and also the one I’ve become closest to while making it, and I think what we both discovered by going through all that is that there isn’t really a guide – it just hits you like a hurricane.

So this time, having come out the other side of the trauma, I wanted to remove any elements of fiction and tell the real story. All of the songs are the same but the story is quite different – both Lara and I perform in it and it’s basically the story of trying to write a guide and not being able to finish it. It’s much more truthful and for me, a lot more satisfying.

Also, we always get in contact with local oncologists that we know from each area that the show visits and scope out whether anybody wants to come on stage at the end and tell us their own guide. So there’s always a connection between fiction and reality and between the place where we come from and the place we’re performing in, which I think is really important.

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is based on the real-life stories of lots of different cancer patients. How did you go about researching those and choosing which ones to include?

Judith, the woman who commissioned the work for Complicité, had cancer at the time I went to pitch her some ideas. She turned down everything I suggested and had a bald head and was flinching every time I coughed anywhere near her, so eventually I just asked if she had cancer and if she’d be up for making a piece of work about it.

After that it started on Facebook – who do I know that’s had cancer? Who do I know that knows someone who’s had cancer? Then I started going into cancer wards and meeting people and asking them all the same questions. Over time, certain people’s stories started to become more interesting to me because they were different from the stories that you usually hear.

I was particularly interested in where it rubs up against other political things like misogyny or poverty or race. And also I wanted to pick out stories that weren’t aggressive or war-based, because everything you usually hear about cancer is like, “We must fight it” or “We must smash it to bits.”

How many different characters and stories feature in the final show?

There are probably about seven different women’s stories in the show, including Judith’s. There’s also Jenny, whose husband left her while she had breast cancer. There’s Pippa who had colon cancer, and one woman who just couldn’t believe that she’d got cancer because she was otherwise so healthy. There was Lara Hazel who died from ovarian cancer. Gia is from America which has a different attitude to healthcare and money and she’s only being treated because she’s on a really tenuous drugs trial.

My favourite scene at the moment is when all the women are in a kind of sharing group, and one is like “My husband’s left me,” and another one is like, “All I do is sweat because the medication is making me go through early menopause.” And they’re all kind of sliding off their chairs as if they’re sinking, until Gia walks in and says, “Um, five white women are playing the oppression Olympics.” So there’s lots of worlds colliding which I really like.

But the main cancer patient in the show is Lara Veitch, who is playing herself this time. She has LFS [Li Fraumeni Syndrome], which means she has a 100% chance of getting cancer because she doesn’t have any tumour suppressant genes. She’s had cancer six times, and every time it was a different sort of cancer.

So she’s like Super Cancer Girl. It’s sort of X-men-ish – she’s actually a medical phenomenon! There are only like 100 people in the world who have this particular condition. So even though it’s the worst thing ever, we try to think of it in positive ways and what it means is that she can speak about cancer in a really profound, next-level way.

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

You co-wrote the play with Brian Lobel – how did you divide things up?

Brian actually has a PhD in Cancer and Performance. He’s had cancer himself and is a Wellcome Fellow and much of his work has been about cancer. So once I’d decided I was going to make a musical about cancer, I knew I needed him to help me. I guess he’s been acting as the kind of overarching political dramaturg. He quite often grabs my writing and tells me “That wouldn’t happen”. But he also has a real understanding of the politics around cancer – the way your body becomes public property when you’re ill.

In terms of the music, Tom and I did what we normally do which is sit in a room and hum stuff. I asked all of the people I interviewed what sort of song they wanted me to write for them, so for example somebody said they wanted a disco song about there being no miracles, and so then I’d just sit in a room with Tom and say okay, we need to write a disco song about miracles, and just play around until it happens.

What would you like to see change about representations of cancer in the media?

I think the main problem for me is that often, cancer is portrayed as someone’s life starting when they get a diagnosis, and the story ending when they either survive or die. Illness is a much more transient thing that that – you go in and out of the worlds of well and ill all the time. I understand that in drama it’s hard because you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but I do think we need to diversify the stories we’re telling, and acknowledge that, after you’ve had cancer, you’re traumatised for the rest of your life, and your body will never be the same again.

That neatness to the storytelling is something that’s been devised by a well person, and often cancer is just something that’s used to heighten whatever drama is already going on – it feels like there’s more suspense if there’s a clock ticking. But the reality is that cancer is really long and slow and boring dirty and messed up. So I think if people could write stories that were more like actual stories, that would be cool.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is at the Belgrade Theatre 14-17 February 2018. Tickets are available to book now at