No subject is off-limits when it comes to musicals. The form is endlessly malleable. The National already has a history of producing off-kilter additions to the genre, with Jerry Springer – The Opera, which used a form of high culture (opera) to satirise one of low culture (daytime talk show), and London Road, which boldly mixed musical and verbatim theatre techniques to tell a true story of a community directly affected by a serial killer.
Now the National, working with co-producer Complicite Associates who commissioned the project and whose producer Judith Dimant’s personal experience of cancer provided the inspiration, has given house room to this necessarily tentative, provisional response to a diverse set of people grappling with a cancer diagnosis and its treatment.
Bryony Kimmings is a performer best known for her heavily autobiographical solo and two-person shows. This is her biggest piece to date. It has a cast of 12, plus a five-person band, and is intentionally discomforting as it takes us to places we’d rather not visit among “the kingdom of the sick”. It’s a world with a lot of fear and no certainties and the show fearlessly confronts our responses to this difficult subject.
Kimmings offers a documentary-like tapestry of scenes from the frontline of those affected, as patients await their hospital appointments (she researched the show by joining patients as they went to them). A single mother Emma, bringing her baby Owen for treatment, provides a pivotal focus; there’s also a young man with testicular cancer, being urged to bank his sperm, a man with lung cancer who is still smoking and a woman who is running out of treatment options and being encouraged to look at hospice care. They are played with an unforced sense of realism and connection by an ensemble cast that includes Amanda Hadingue as the baby’s mum, Gary Wood as the young man and Hal Fowler as the smoker.
Their stories are woven together with some bracing songs, composed by Tom Parkinson in a variety of genres. Instead of an elephant in the room in the form of the cancer that is affecting each of them, there are giant inflatables that represent their cancer cells.
To call the show brave would risk patronising its characters, and that’s the last thing they need. Instead, they just need us to be there, and to be honest.
Kimmings’ show comes into its own in the second half when the music mostly falls away and her own story, of dealing with her young son Frank’s illness, takes centre stage (though she doesn’t make a personal appearance herself and is only heard on a voice-over). In the show’s shattering finale, the cast and audience are invited to remember the people they know themselves who are living with illness. It’s a universal story – and the show is a tender and healing shared experience.