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.
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.