Cancer is no laughing matter… or is it? In the European premiere of Halley Feiffer’s play, which for the sake of brevity let’s call A Funny Thing Happened, we’re respectfully invited to see the humorous side of an incredibly serious situation.
Karla’s mum has cancer. So does Don’s. She’s a stand-up comedian with abandonment issues. He’s a divorced millionaire with a “sea foam green” apartment he can’t bring himself to live in. The first time they meet, she’s working aloud on a comedy routine about her vibrator, and he – not entirely without justification – is appalled. They have nothing at all in common besides the two women sleeping quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) in the beds beside them, but that single shared experience is enough to spark a surprising connection.
The vibrator jokes, as it turns out, are just the tip of the iceberg – but despite the ever-present gallows humour, there’s something very uplifting about this story of two unlikely companions working their way together through a devastating situation. It’s an unconventional, sometimes undignified and often wildly inappropriate journey – but does that mean they’re doing it wrong?
As Karla and Don, Cariad Lloyd and Rob Crouch have great on-stage chemistry, showing us multiple sides of each character as the dynamic of their relationship shifts. Just as in real life, there are moments when they each know exactly what to say or do to make the other feel better – but equally there are occasions where Feiffer acknowledges that there simply aren’t adequate words to make sense of what they’re going through.
On paper, Kristin Milward and Cara Chase have a lot less to do as the mums, Marcie and Geena, who spend most of their time sleeping – but their presence (and occasional contributions) become a vital backdrop to both the story and the characters within it. When Marcie wakes up, about halfway through the play, it’s quite a curveball; very quickly we have a much clearer understanding of why Karla is the way she is, but we also have to face up to the inconvenient truth that nobody wants to say aloud – not all cancer patients are nice people.
Isabella van Braeckel’s set recreates the hospital environment down to the last detail; I could swear I caught a whiff of disinfectant in the air on the way in. The long curtain that spans the stage, shielding the patients from view, cleverly doubles up to do the same for the actors during a couple of fairly lengthy scene changes.
Terminal cancer is of course, in itself, not at all funny – and even less so in the States, where the cost of healthcare in a time of crisis only makes an unbearable situation even worse. A Funny Thing Happened respects that, and knows when to stop joking around and take itself seriously; the final scenes, in particular, are sensitively written and poignantly portrayed. In fact, the subject is so well handled that audiences are more likely to be offended by the foul-mouthed content of the jokes than the fact that jokes are being made in the first place. Cancer might be a formidable opponent, and it may well get the better of us eventually – but, as this play proves, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a big old laugh in its face first.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is at Finborough Theatre until 27th October.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉