There’s no escaping the emotion in this tear-jerking examination of cancer sufferers and those who are left behind. If, when you saw the title, The Show Must Go On, you thought of the Queen song fronted by Freddie Mercury, then ten points to you – and it is indeed a highly emotional lyric about survival against all the odds. If, like me, you thought of Leo Sayer, then lie about your age, take a minus mark and go to the back of the class.
Beautifully structured, we are presented with three interweaving scenarios. There is the story of Alice, a perfectly ordinary young woman, who still has to help her useless brother with his tie, and whose best friend wants them to sing (inappropriately) with a thrash metal band; she discovers she has cancer. There is the story of Tracy, kind-hearted and down to earth, married to Bill whom she loves dearly despite all his faults; she receives a ghastly diagnosis and hasn’t long to live. There is the story of Gareth, a feeble stand-up comedian who does his act sitting down, unable to face the future without knocking back too many JDs, telling progressively more upsettingly black jokes about the cancer that is going to kill his wife.
But it’s not all grave, if you’ll pardon the pun. The harsh reality of the subject matter is juxtaposed with several humorous moments – there is always going to be black comedy in such times. For me, the most successful was Jake Rivers’ brilliantly awful stand-up routine, carrying on with these desperately terrible jokes long after the initial humour had subsided, the agony of the character’s personal tragedy staring at us directly through Mr Rivers’ pained eyes. It was superb. All the scenes between Penelope May as Alice and Madeleine Hagerty as her friend Sally also worked extremely well, ranging from the carefree girls’ banter to the much needed loving support as the effects of the disease kick in, all done with great lightness of touch and true sincerity. The only scene which, for me, was not credible, was where two doctors were prevaricating about telling Tracy about her awful diagnosis. I appreciate it was meant to be black comedy, but, in my (reasonably limited) experience, doctors have no time to hum and hah about breaking bad news to someone. They just get on and tell you in your face and if it’s a shock then that’s tough. There was, however, a wonderful antidote to the doctors, in the form of Miss May’s portrayal of the Macmillan nurse, a character who was kindness itself, and which was accurate and believable in every way.
There were a couple of big pathos moments: Gareth’s conversation with the Macmillan nurse, when she hasn’t been informed that his wife has died – sincerely and emotionally performed by both actors; Alice’s possessions being packed away into sad little cardboard boxes whilst Miss Hagerty gave us a strong rendition of the title song. There were also references to both the late David Bowie and Sir Terry Wogan, which brought the continued relevance of how cancer is a part of everyone’s lives into sharp focus.
By the end at least two members of the audience were in tears. This was a play with a power and a passion and a message that addresses us all. It tugged on the heartstrings but I never got the sense of its being mawkish or self-indulgent; it hit just the right note. Three performances of great sensitivity were required to carry this material, and the three actors met that challenge superbly. Congratulations to all concerned!