How would you even start to put the horrific experience of cancer into a performance? It shouldn’t work. Nothing about a musical comedy about cancer should work… But this does.

Bryony Kimmings’ ground breaking roller-coaster follows the story of single mother Emma, (Amanda Hadingue), as she experiences a hospital cancer unit for the first time, desperately awaiting the test results for her baby boy.

Her journey through the ward sees her meeting five individuals from completely different walks of life. The one thing that connects them all, is that they are all battling cancer.

We take a surreal and abstract journey with these characters, learning how they each deal with the horrendous cards they’ve been dealt.

Hadingue leads the show with a heart breaking visceral performance as Emma. The other leading characters are equally as strong individually and as an ensemble . They expertly take you from the devastating, to the hilarious, to the surreal within seconds. Performance highlights include incredibly moving moments from Golda Rosheuvel and outstanding vocals from Naana Agyei-Ampadu and Rose Shalloo.

The music was incredibly varied, which showcased beautifully the range of emotions the characters were dealing with. The orchestrations and harmonies were masterful, with the lyrics being slightly on the more simple side. However the simplicity of the lyrics lent themselves to the message of the piece and the furthering of the narrative. Lizzie Gee’s sharp, angular choreography felt every pulse in the music and suited the surreal direction perfectly.

There are several things about this production that were strokes of genius for me. The first was there was absolutely nothing held back about the surreal horror of the disease. In this respect, the production wasn’t afraid to be ugly. It relished in the uncomfortable silences, contrasted brilliantly with unpleasant, loud sound effects. Act two opened simply with the awful blaring sound of an MRI scanner which played out for several minutes.

Another stand out aspect of the performance was the use of verbatim, and how the real life people behind the stories were celebrated for their strength and bravery.

One of the things I love most about theatre is the sense of community it brings. And this show brings an auditorium together like I’ve never seen before. In her opening voice over, Kimmings highlights that Brits as a whole are terrible when it comes to discussing illness and death. It’s just not something we are open about. As I left the auditorium, all I could hear around me were people openly sharing their experiences of cancer with each other. It was a beautiful thing. Mission accomplished Bryony.

A musical about cancer doesn’t exactly scream ‘commercial success’ which is a crying shame, because everyone should see this show, regardless if their lives have been touched by cancer.

Reviewed by Laura Burrell
Photo: Mark Douet

A PACIFIST’S GUIDE TO WAR ON CANCER plays at the National Theatre until 29 November 2016