A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is now showing at the National. Niall Adams talks to Jenny Fitzpatrick about her role in the production.
A Pacifists Guide has been performing at the National for a week now, and touring around the country before that – how’s it going so far?
It’s quite lovely because we’ve had completely different responses in each venue that we’ve been in. We started in Manchester for a week and then we went to Exeter performing at the university campus so it was quite student based. Since we’ve been at the National the show has changed quite a bit so once again it’s completely different – so it’s been very fun!
Is the show still changing now you’re at the National?
No – it should be stuck now I hope! But it’s such a sensitive and different subject that we’ve had to kind of change it quite a bit when we knew what response we were getting from the audience. We wanted to make sure that we had the right message and how it was coming across because it can be quite an overwhelming piece. Bryony Kimmings, the director, has done a really good job of doing that I think, but hopefully it’s stuck how it is now!
Are the audiences in London responding differently to the audiences in Manchester?
Yeah, there’s a bit at the end where the audience are invited to respond and speak out loud and I’ve been interested, because obviously with the British response it can be quite reserved but everyone has been very vocal in a very lovely way. In Manchester and, I think, more so in London and Exeter people have all wanted their moment to speak and talk about people who they were thinking of.
For anyone who hasn’t seen A Pacifist’s Guide yet, can you tell us a bit about the show?
The show follows the life of somebody very new to the world of cancer and her experience of diagnosis and how she reacts to it. What we’re trying to say is that there is no easy way to talk about cancer and we entertained the idea of maybe putting it in a musical format and throughout the show this kind of breaks down into something very real. Act two, people find when they watch it, is incredibly honest and we all become ourselves and talk very genuinely. It’s more of an experience than a show, I think is the best way to describe it. It can be quite overwhelming but I found it very therapeutic having had quite a few people in my family connected to cancer.
I play a character called Dr. Lacey, who’s the oncologist so I work very closely with the patients in the show giving their diagnosis and treatments. There’s a lot of light-hearted stuff too! I’m making it sound very dark! But lots of songs, interesting colourful costumes and some great choreography by Lizzie Gee so it’s a mixture of life art and musical theatre.
You’ve worked in a lot of musicals before like RENT, but why do you think they work when confronting these hard to discuss issues?
Yes! I played Mimi in RENT so that was very heavy as well – quite emotionally intense. I think with a subject like [A Pacifist’s Guide] being so relatable it’s very hard to talk openly and earnestly because it does affect all of us in one way or another, whether it be a family member or ourselves. I think through a medium of song and dance, it can just become ever so slightly easier to comprehend and accept – but that’s kind of what the musical’s about without giving away too much. It’s saying that the way to deal with cancer is to talk and, as a society, we do find it very hard – that’s pretty much our opening line. But I just think with music and dance it’s a lot easier to hear.
And has working on the show affected your own perceptions and relationship towards cancer?
Yeah, it’s such a scary subject but in fact it’s part of life and it’s made me be a lot more open to having the conversation. It’s brought me a lot closer to my family I think having to talk about death and cancer and deal with it on a daily basis – it’s just made me understand myself and my relationship with the subject matter a lot more.
How did you go about preparing for the role?
For me, it’s always a case of reading the script first and working out what the director wants from it and then working out what I want from the character. I spoke to a lot of doctors and we had nurses come in and speak to us. We wanted to bring a lot of truth to the characters. You want to give an honest performance so a lot of research had to go into this. My character, Dr. Lacey, does a lot of the diagnosis so I wanted to be very truthful so spoke to some doctors, friends of mine, about the most honest way to deliver that.
You mentioned you have your own personal connections with the illness, and the show features real cancer patients, how has this impacted the process of rehearsing and devising?
From day one the director Bryony felt very passionately that this shouldn’t be a stressful process and if things ever became too much that it’s okay to take a time-out. I think it’s been fine because we’re such a strong team, such a unified company, that when people were getting upset, it’s not been an issue, we’ve just all stuck together to create what I hope is a really honest performance.
This is your first time at the National, what’s it like being in such an iconic space for the arts?
I absolutely love it! We’re in the Dorfman theatre which is a beautiful venue and all three theatres are absolutely fantastic – the vibe in the building is incredible. It’s like a little community and it’s been a great experience so far. We have another two months so I’m very excited about being here!
How is the show comparing so far to past musicals you’ve worked on?
Entirely different from anything I’ve ever done in a wonderful way! It’s been such an amazing experience and the way Bryony directs is so fantastic and she’s an absolute genius. It’s been fantastic working with herself and Lizzie Gee. I’ve worked with Lizzie before, she’s an amazing choreographer, so it’s been great working together again. The music is beautiful and I get to do a very fun 70s track called ‘Miracle’ with Golda Rosheuvel!
With all these amazing costumes and music, but what’s been your personal favourite part of working on the show?
Too much actually! But I think getting to work with the team of people I’m with. I’ve never known a company to be so united. It’s a fantastic ensemble of people and to be honest I think that experience has been a huge learning curve but overwhelmingly great. It’s a tight company so it’s been a beautiful thing. But at the same time, I absolutely love all the choreography, the music’s beautiful – the crew have done such a fantastic job with it – it’s just an absolute pleasure to be a part of!
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is at The National until 29 November
Featured Image: Complicite