Bryony Kimmings shakes up sickness stories with A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer
You’ve seen the story countless times before – an ordinary life is transformed by a cancer diagnosis at the start of a journey that either ends in tragedy or in an “inspirational” recovery. But real-life experiences are rarely quite so neat. So says Bryony Kimmings, creator of Complicite’s innovative musical A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, coming to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in February.
“What nobody ever acknowledges is that post-cancer you’re kind of a wreck. People are like, ‘You don’t have cancer any more so you can stop talking about it now,’” says Kimmings. “But you change when something like that happens to you. You lose your breasts or your son becomes disabled or your husband leaves you or whatever, and you become a different person.”
The title for the show stems from Kimmings’ discomfort with the aggressive, war-based nature of the language typically used to describe illness which can leave little room to discuss what happens next. But it’s not just about diversifying the nature of the narratives we hear around cancer: she’s also worked hard to mix up the different types of voices who get to tell their stories.
“There are a lot of worlds colliding which I really like. Middle class cancer is different to working class cancer. People with no friends cancer is different to cancer for people with family that draw close to them,” she says. “I was really interested in where it rubbed up against other political things.”
Crucially though, it’s not all as dark as it might sound. There’s joy and humour too, and an open challenge to the idea of cancer patients as passive victims without agency. What’s so powerful about A Pacifist’s Guide is its portrayal of unique individuals with personalities, hopes and fears – not to mention their own taste in music. Packed with songs running the full gamut from emotional ballads to punchy disco numbers, it certainly promises a unique experience for its audiences.