Great subject, terminal illness. Popular dramas like Love Story, Terms of Endearment and My Night With Reg handle the issue with tact and artistry by presenting us with a single victim and a narrative focus that reveals as much about the survivors as about the patient. Crucially, the disease is omitted from the title for fear of discouraging the punters from mentioning the work in conversation.
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer violates all these strictures. Half a dozen characters seated in a hospital ward shout at us about their failing health. These disjointed gobbets of testimony are interspersed with repetitive zombie dances and noisy songs with lyrics like ‘fuck cancer’. Snatches of insulting dialogue reinforce the mood of chippy sourness. A mother with an afflicted baby tells a lung-cancer victim he should be ashamed of himself for smoking. He wittily orders her to ‘fuck off’ and adds, with a snort of toxic fumes, that he pays his taxes.
This boring, preachy philistine drama goes around in circles for two hours and then reveals itself as a hoax. The author Bryony Kimmings, in a recorded announcement, informs us that the characters are based on real victims (although it’s unclear who created the snippy dialogue and the grisly characterisations). The Kimmings voice then asks a cancerous patient to climb up on stage and deliver a few words of confession. Finally, she invites us to yell out the names of victims among our acquaintance. The house erupted with fretful imprecations. ‘Granny!’ ‘Keith!’ ‘Araminta!’ ‘Bill!’ ‘Tiberius!’ ‘Bianca!’ Anthropologists would have found this crude ceremony fascinating: ‘The savages are obsessed with a mysterious wasting disease their medicine cannot cure. The adults gather in a communal hut and watch their chanting brethren imitate the witch doctor’s rites of healing. The sacrament ends when the savages invoke the names of the recently dead in the hope that spirits dwelling in the underworld may protect them from infection.’ I’d rate this as one of the ugliest nights of my life.
The Red Barn is David Hare’s new adaptation of a Georges Simenon thriller set among American millionaires. I hate thrillers. Their goal is to trick the audience with the manipulative concealment of basic information, and they oblige the play-goer to surrender his intellectual autonomy to an absent puppetmaster. This thriller — which is as bad as they get — is executed brilliantly. Ray is lost in a snowstorm. His best friend Donald volunteers to look for him but gets scared and hides in a barn smoking cigarettes. Later Donald’s wife finds the butts and reveals his duplicity. But did Donald want Ray dead? Will Donald slay his wife to save himself? How will Ray’s widow, now dallying with Donald, respond to the truth?
The plot is laid out with slow-moving subtlety. The visuals are superb. There are multiple sets, sometimes partially obscured by sliding panels, which offer a supplementary mystery because they seem to occupy more space than the stage encompasses. Hare’s dialogue is taut, razor-sharp and fantastically unpleasant. This perfectly suits the loathsome, narcissistic characters. Everyone on stage is a calculating monster plotting to increase his or her personal store of status, wealth and erotic fulfilment.
The outstanding feature is the atmosphere. Dread and anxiety haunt every beat of the play and I spent much of it with my eyes closed for fear that somebody’s stabbed corpse might pop out of an innocuous wardrobe. Robert Icke’s stylish direction is marred by an over-noisy soundtrack. The snowstorm isn’t merely as loud as a real snowstorm. It’s louder. And each scene is punctuated with a pointless FLASH! BANG! of fireworks. After the second explosion I crammed my digits into my ears while the sets were being shifted around. Whodunit fans should heed my sincere praise for this show even though I spent much of it with my eyes clenched tight and both my ears plugged with gummy fingers.
Shopping and Fucking is another problem title. Labelling your play with a taboo word makes the punters less likely to discuss the show, to invite a friend along, or even to book a ticket over the phone. Twenty years ago Mark Ravenhill titillated the country with his outrageous yarn about bisexual drug addicts swapping partners and, in a climactic scene, buggering a suicidal teenager with a screwdriver.
Everything seems rather dated now. Including the dating. The buttock-pumpers meet in a supermarket rather than online. And the moral centre ground has shifted enormously. Gay orgies were rather wicked in the 1990s but they can no longer shock a society where schoolkids watch execution videos on smartphones. The cast treat the show as a celebration. Audience members, including me, were invited on stage to drink and dance. I hate to disappoint anyone but it all felt sweet and rather suburban.