A musical in which colourful cancer cells fart about on stage like rejected Saturday morning cartoon characters, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is an unexpectedly jazzy and frenetic show. It dissects and digests the bleak world of terminal illness with a song and a dance, as tumours slowly emerge from the stage walls and ceiling, inflating over the course of the two-hour performance.
We follow a single mother as she admits her baby to an oncology ward, where she meets an all-singing cast of diverse cancer patients. They each bring to light some of the less obvious effects of the disease: the nauseating vocabulary of “suffering” and “positivity”, the risk of passing it on to an unborn child, the “aggressive sorrow” of friends locked into pity mode, the smoker accused of being a drain on the NHS.
“Let’s talk about this!” is the message here, but I’m not fully on board with the premise that cancer is still such a taboo topic, or that there’s a silence that sorely needs breaking. When the show changes gear in the second half and reveals through recorded interviews the real-life people behind the characters, the performance turns into a sort of mawkish group therapy session. The cast is asked to call out the names of those close to them who have been affected by or lost to cancer, which they do. The audience is then asked to do the same, which on the night felt jarring and maudlin, a bit we’ve-all-had-fun-here-tonight-but-seriously.
A Pacifist’s Guide deserves credit for being so freely silly in its approach to telling stories of real cancer experiences, but it’s a long and messy show that ultimately circles back around to the unavoidable grief of the whole thing.