Updated: Jun 22, 2022
Clara Darcy and Ian Kershaw
Oldham Coliseum Company
June 17- July 2 ; 75min, no interval
(Then Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, July 12-13; Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, September 25-28; Edinburgh Fringe, August 3-18. Other dates to be confirmed)
It is, as one character observes early-on, "all a bit meta". Three actors play the same character, who is actually one of them, in a play that tells the true story about her real life outside theatre. Or something like that.
Oh, and it begins with a recorded conversation about writing the play, between Darcy and co-writer Ian Kershaw. Then we see the play they were talking about writing...
Clara Darcy, a 30-something, trumpet-playing actress who has in recent years appeared in shows at the Coliseum - including several productions of Brassed Off, as she observes to get the audience situated about her - was living a hard-driving, singleton life. Then in July 2019 she finally, after several months of blinding headaches, saw a doctor and found she had a bony tumour "the size of a fist" growing at the top of her spinal cord and impinging on her brain. Within a week she was in theatre for 14 hours of dangerous surgery.
Cue a play about the long slow journey into the void? Well yes, but then again, no. Clearly, since she is appearing in the drama about her real-life, she recovered and is now healthy again (and, as it happens, with a man she met while having proton-beam therapy after her monstrous surgery by a surgeon at Manchester's Christie Hospital. Life, eh?). So she's as happy as she can be, knowing that the tumour might return at any time.
The play is thus the story of her story, told by Clara (pronounced Claira, not Clara) and actors Shamia Chalabi and veteran actress Suzanna Hamilton, the latter most widely recently seen in EastEnders. Shamia and Suzanna play both Clara - which means they can act as devil's advocate with her darker, inner thoughts - and other people in her life, from her parents and sisters to the surgeon and a particularly philosophical hospital orderly.
It sounds confusing but it really isn't, and the compensation is to watch an actress clearly happy to be alive and back on track with her life.
The 75 minutes of life-and-death incident are quite charmingly and simply done. This is a fairly cut-down production, lively directed by Tatty Hennessy and another cancer survivor, Raz Shaw, and made for easy touring, especially as the Coliseum's first Edinburgh Fringe show in August. It is performed with a few props, from a table and wheelchair to toys and other bits and pieces, and watched through the open front of a large box formed by buff-coloured, hospital-style curtains. An extravagant set isn't a requirement for such a rich and personal story.
It's well-constructed too, presumably thanks to playwright Ian Kershaw, who with Darcy offers a mix of hospital visits, uplifting comic interludes, intimate details and personal musings on life and death and, as the pair admit, an ending that doesn't quite know what it is. The argument is that it can't really have an "ending" as such, because Darcy, though alive and well, potentially still has a shadow over her continued existence. It's a frank, honest assessment of life with and after this brutal disease, and leaves things, as survivors often are, optimistic but wary.
More than a few audience members stood at the end and the weird thing is, they were probably applauding the real person, not the play. Such is the strange and remarkably personal fascination of the evening. A deeply rewarding experience.