Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at Finborough Theatre

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.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

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.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

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… 😉

Review: How To Save A Life at Theatre N16

According to Cancer Research, around 1 in 135 women in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime. Maybe that makes it sound like the odds are in our favour – but what if you’re the one?

Written and directed by Stephanie Silver, How To Save A Life is the story of Melissa (Heather Wilkins), who’s just learned she’s got cervical cancer after going to the doctor with an embarrassing and apparently minor complaint. The play follows her through her journey and explores how her diagnosis affects her relationship with those closest to her – in particular, her boyfriend Toby (John Mark Slade) and best friend Maria (Katerina Robinson).

The first surprise is how funny the play is; Melissa is an engaging central character who’s not afraid to (over)share intimate details about her life, and who, despite her immediate fears that as a cancer patient she’ll never smile again, still manages to find silver linings to her condition. All the Spice Girls dance routines, gap year plans and glitter cannons in the world, though, can’t quite distract us – or Melissa – from the sobering reality of what’s happening to her, as with each new doctor’s appointment the prognosis gets a little worse. Heather Wilkins’ performance captures really well the growing sense of panic that constantly intrudes, despite Melissa’s best attempts to smother it, and we feel each new blow right along with her.

How To Save A Life at Theatre N16

Some of the play’s most poignant scenes are shared moments with Toby and Maria, who never leave her side (literally; both John Mark Slade and Katerina Robinson remain on stage throughout, filling in all the other roles and ensuring the right prop is always to hand). Though it’s initially heartwarming to see their unwavering support, as the play goes on it begins to make things worse, because Melissa’s all too aware of how much she means to them and what it’ll be like for them to lose her. Should the play be developed into a full-length piece – and let’s hope it is – it would be great to see this complex relationships angle explored in more depth.

Perhaps inevitably, given that it was written by a medical professional, the play’s immediate impact is also to educate its audience about the symptoms to look out for, and the importance of cervical cancer screening. Far from lecturing, however, it does this very naturally through Melissa, as she not only shares what initially led her to consult the doctor but also reflects on the other earlier signs she brushed off as “normal”. As a woman in the audience, it’s almost impossible not to be affected or go away with a heightened awareness of the risks.

It’s still early days for How To Save A Life, which is performed at Theatre N16 this week as part of the Catapult new writing festival – but already there’s a huge amount of potential in this short but impactful piece. If nothing else, it should encourage more people to go for screening, but it’s also a deeply poignant look at one young woman’s devastating personal journey through a cancer diagnosis and beyond. I hope we’ll see more of it in the future.

Catch the final two performances of How To Save A Life at Theatre N16 on 28th and 29th September, 9.30pm.

Interview: Toby Peach, The Eulogy of Toby Peach

Toby Peach has fought cancer twice – once at age 19 and again at 21. Now he’s taking his one-man show, The Eulogy of Toby Peach, on a UK tour, starting at London’s VAULT Festival and running from 17th-21st February.

The show, which won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award in 2015 and proved a five-star hit in Edinburgh, is a brave and humorous exploration of what cancer’s all about, through Toby’s own story. It’s also a really important show, given that 1 in 2 of us will experience cancer in our lifetime, and I’m grateful to Toby for taking the time to tell me a little more about it.

What prompted you to share your story?

I developed a short story for BAC’s London Stories back at the end of 2013, it dipped into my journey with cancer and it was the first time I had decided to speak about it. The response was fantastic and I decided I wanted to delve deeper into that world, as I realised I had no idea what had happened. I’d been through this life-changing event and I had no idea what had happened – it was all a blur. I realised that I didn’t know what cancer was. This thing that nearly took my life and I had no idea.

If, hauntingly, it is now 1 in 2 of us who will experience what cancer is, shouldn’t we know what it is? As it became apparent that cancer was just me, then how am I still here? This question prompted a deeper exploration and with it came a discovery that I wanted to share.

The Eulogy of Toby Peach

How long has the show taken to develop? 

After BAC and with the help of Old Vic New Voices I developed the show so I could scratch it and then the unbelievable happened and I won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award. I was blown away as it meant I had to make the whole bloody show!

After assembling a cracking team I headed out to Plymouth Fringe Festival to scratch the show further and experience solo performance – I had never performed a solo show before so it was very daunting. Then came Edinburgh; we had a fantastic month getting it out there for the first time and were overwhelmed by the positive feedback to the show from audiences, press and industry alike, as well as being inspired by the learnings and ideas taken away from the experience.

So after all of that we come to VAULT festival, and as we’ve just received Arts Council, National Lottery and Wellcome Trust funding, we can’t wait to get started and develop this show further to reach more audiences in the future. 

Has it taken any unexpected directions?

This has been my first experience of writing, and also solo work, so the whole experience has been quite unexpected. I have strange moments when I’m performing when I realise ‘Oh yer, this happened!’ or a version of it. I mean I never did have an affair with an IV Stand but that relationship was present – so sometimes I’ll be dancing away with IVY (my IV Stand girlfriend) and then it’ll hit me again. It’s an odd experience.

What’s been the highlight so far?

Since Edinburgh I’ve been off to perform the show a number of times and had the honour of taking it to Teenage Cancer Trust’s conference, Find Your Sense of Tumour, for 300 young people who have or have had cancer and their support teams; this was an incredible experience and extremely rewarding.

I was very nervous about performing for them, as I knew they related so much with the subject matter, but they were laughing at lines that people don’t normally get and they loved it. People expect you can’t laugh at cancer but especially when you’re young and you’ve been through it, they understand there are things that if you look at it again are fairly amusing. I spoke to so many afterwards about what it meant to them and that meant the world to me.

Can you sum up the show in one sentence?

From diagnosis to remission, relapse and treatment, experience a young man’s journey with cancer in this honest, fascinating and inspiring exploration of modern science and the wonders of the human body. 

What are you hoping audiences will take away from it?

I hope they take away the hardest word to say with cancer… Hope. The show doesn’t say we’ve been lucky and we should be thankful for that, it says we are here because of certain reasons and we have a hell of a way to go – but we are trying. Chemotherapy was only trialled 69 years ago… look how far we’ve come.

Finally, what would be your advice to someone currently living with cancer?

That is a very tricky question to answer, as everyone has his or her own unique experience with cancer. I can’t say there is a right way or wrong way to live with cancer. For me, it took a long time but I wanted to explore what had happened so I didn’t hide from it. I have scars, everyone gets them throughout life, but I realised it isn’t about how we get our scars; for me it’s about how we wear them in the here and now that matters.

See The Eulogy of Toby Peach from 17th-21st February at the VAULT Festival, London.

Toby will also be running a free workshop called Creativity Saving Lives, exploring the background to the show, on 21st February at 2pm.