A Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer

“What about the intersectional cancer stories where cancer meets race or gender or sexuality?”


Sarah Ainslie


It’s hard to believe we’re in the last week of rehearsals already. It’s 11am and we’re just finishing our daily warm-up with Beyonce’s Run The World (Girls). It's been our morning ritual after a wake-up yoga session for the last three weeks to get us pumped for the day ahead. I look around the exposed brick rehearsal room of the old Menier Chocolate Factory in London and I’m surrounded by an incredible team of women; six performers, a choreographer, director, assistant director and, of course, my sister Bryony Kimmings – badass-feminist-performance-artist-extraordinaire and writer of this show: a play about cancer… with music. That sounds a bit heavy, I know, but it’s a surprisingly uplifting and funny production with singing and dancing, some tears and a lot of laughter. 


This is the first time Bryony and I have been on stage together in this capacity, and it’s mostly really fun. I’m younger than she is so she bosses me around a lot (!) but we’re learning about each other’s trade; she’s learning that it’s hard to sing, dance and play an instrument at the same time, and I’m learning how hard it is to be yourself and be vulnerable in front of an auditorium full of people. We have a lot of respect for each other. It’s important to have each other’s backs for such a sensitive process.


It was crucial for Bryony to be surrounded by a wicked support system; in our case, it’s this all female-identifying cast. There’s something very special about the nature of this environment, it feels powerful and strong and very supportive. In one corner of the room someone is breast pumping, in another someone is comfortably undressing mid-conversation, we’re visited by various company members’ kids, we’re talking about sex and smear tests. It’s only week three.


Photo by Sarah Ainslie


The other day in rehearsals one of the cast said that they really felt like they could be themselves in the room and that, for me, is what this is all about. They didn’t feel like they had to be an “actor” in a way they had done before with a guard up or a need to impress the room. As a queer performer and theatre-maker this is important to me as it is all about inclusion. This show is a reminder that illness doesn’t care about class, politics, race, sex, gender or sexuality. We’re all human and illness ain’t picky yet the lens around cancer and illness is a narrow one.


Bryony wanted to explore how society talks about cancer and whether this is helpful or actually quite destructive. The current narrative of the disease is littered with battle metaphors about fighting and winning or losing but how do you fight cancer when it’s just a part of your body gone rogue? They discovered that so many stories aren’t told despite the fact that it affects one in two people. What about the intersectional cancer stories where cancer meets race or gender or sexuality or where it’s just not financially viable to be sick? Where’s the feminist perspective on it? (Spoiler - Audre Lorde and Susan Sontag make an appearance.) They wanted to create a guide for all the pacifists out there; to allow them to have the public permission for cancer to just be shit and not have to “fight” it. 


Photo by Mark Douet


The show has been made in collaboration with over thirty real-life patients over the last three years. What we’ve found in trying to get to the truth of cancer that it becomes a lot less scary when we’re able to talk about it. In talking about it hopefully we can be better prepared when we do get diagnosed and be better prepared to support those around us. Lara Veitch is one of the other performers in the show. She has Li-Fraumeni Syndrome which means she is genetically predisposed to having cancer. She’s 28 years old and has had cancer six times. She’s kind of an oracle on the disease and there’s a brilliant section where she gives some sage advice on being a good friend to someone with cancer. She also talks about the pressure she received from friends and medical staff to have reconstructive surgery following a double mastectomy, which she successfully resisted. She opted for an awesome tattoo instead!


I’m lucky enough to be a member of the cast that performed in the show when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2016, and for me, it feels like a completely different show. The internationally renowned theatre company Complicité is behind the production and has allowed it to be been re-worked and re-written so Bryony now performs in the show. We're spreading the love by taking the show to the Playhouse (Liverpool), Northern Stage (Newcastle) and the Belgrade Theatre (Coventry) before flying down under for an Australian tour.


I hope people will love the energy onstage and the politics as much as I do, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work and the amazing team behind it. It feels like this show allows us to move beyond the need to say “I’m a fighter” and towards “hold me, I’m terrified, please tell me you are too”; a space where better care is demanded, real conversations can begin and metaphors and rhetoric can change.


Photo by Mark Douet



Lottie Vallis is performing in A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer.




Liverpool Playhouse until 3 Feb

Newcastle Northern Stage 7-10 Feb

Coventry Belgrade Theatre 14-17 Feb



Canberra Theatre Centre 28 Feb – 3 Mar

Melbourne Malthouse Theatre 7-11 Mar

Sydney Seymour Centre 22 – 29 Mar


Find out more: Complicite.org/APacifistsGuide



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