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.

Review: To She Or Not To She at Lyric Hammersmith

About ten months ago, I was at a scratch night at Morley College, where I watched the first fifteen minutes of a very funny one-woman show about a teenage girl who wants to be Hamlet in her school play, but is devastated to see the role going to an inferior actor – who just happens to be a boy.

Five months later, I was back at Morley to review the full show before it went up to Edinburgh, and was surprised by the direction it had taken. Instead of a riotous comedy about a woman playing Shakespeare’s men, the piece had developed into an honest and brave (but still funny) account of the difficulties faced by female actors in the theatre industry through one woman’s personal experience.

Last night, Joue le Genre‘s To She Or Not To She was back in London, playing to a sell-out crowd as part of Evolution at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I was keen to see how it had developed both during the Edinburgh run and since, under its new director Katharina Reinthaller.

To She Or Not To She, Joue le Genre

To She Or Not To She is the story of actor Emma Bentley, who plays various versions of herself at ages 14, 19, 23 and 24, as well as a host of other colourful characters from her past. Emma’s a natural comedian, and has no problem with joining the audience in laughing at herself – although even she seemed taken aback last night at how popular some of her one-liners were. Much of these are in-jokes for either the theatre crowd or the women in the audience, but none are so specialist that they can’t be appreciated by anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories.

Emma’s confident, natural performance and openness about her own shortcomings and disappointments – as an actor and a woman – mean that by the time we arrive at the serious heart of the show, the audience is fully invested and willing to listen, not just to Emma’s story but also to the other female actors who’ve supplied verbatim accounts of their experiences in the industry, for a scene that marks the show’s turning point from pure comedy to something much darker.

Under its new director, To She Or Not To She has been reworked – so gone is the record player that used to open the show, and instead we see Emma indulging in a bit of secret Shakespeare fangirling whilst mopping floors at the coffee shop where she works to pay the bills. This, it turns out, is the present day, and acts as a sobering backdrop to the younger Emma’s optimism as she chats excitedly to the audience about her future prospects.

It’s a privilege to have seen To She Or Not To She develop from its very early days into the show it is now – one that’s really fun to watch, but also has a clear and powerful political message. At a time when equality in acting is a hotly debated issue, it’s also very timely, and while Emma herself recognises that her own disappointments may not be the most shocking or serious, they nonetheless pave the way for an important discussion that needs to take place.

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… 😉