Interview – composer Tom Parkinson on his National Theatre debut with A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

Tom Parkinson in rehearsal - A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer (c) Sarah Ainslie

Tom Parkinson in rehearsal for A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer. Picture: Sarah Ainslie

For its next musical venture, the National Theatre is presenting A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer – a new work written by acclaimed performance artist Bryony Kimmings and put into song by her long-time music collaborator Tom Parkinson.

Last year, Kimmings was the hit of the Edinburgh Festival Festival with her show Fake It Til You Make It, about male clinical depression and suicide, and her latest effort, a co-production with Complicite, looks to be equally as challenging, tackling another provocative and taboo topic in what will surely be her idiosyncratic style.

In the run up to the show’s opening, Musical Theatre Review’s Craig Glenday spoke with the composer and sound designer TOM PARKINSON about the challenges he’s facing in writing for this, his first ever musical.

Although it’s his first full-scale musical, the soft-spoken northerner has plenty of experience, crafting everything from “delicate piano scores to brutal noise” for film, TV, radio and the stage, with more than 50 plays under his belt as composer.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer (with a book by Kimmings and Brian Lobel) is described as ‘looking behind the poster campaigns and pink ribbons at the reality of cancer: waiting rooms and chemo suites, changed bodies, family pressures and financial worries’, so we started by asking Tom about the show’s rather difficult subject matter…

Cancer? That’s an unusual choice for a musical, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it’s a musical about cancer… an alternative look at cancer and its effects, with all the singing and dancing that a musical entails. There is a narrative – which I’m not going to give away before you come and see it – but it’s definitely an antidote to the conventional ways of telling stories about cancer.

It seems, in a funny way, that the most appropriate form for dealing with cancer on stage would be a musical. It’s kind of obvious when you start thinking about. A musical is an excellent way to present the subject because you’ve got the ability to deal with things with both a levity and a gravitas that’s sort of unavailable to other artforms.

When you take something like Les Misérables, you’re dealing with a really heavy subject – the French Revolution – but somehow the form of the musical manages to let you deal with it with a light touch, while still allowing you to grapple with massive subjects. That’s just not possible if it was a straight play, which would have to deal with it in a more robust sense, which is more limiting.

a-pacifists-guide-to-the-war-on-cancer-photography-christa-holkaThere’s a sense that musicals are cultural light relief, but actually looking at them, they can tackle dark and complicated subjects. If we were to do an opera about cancer, it would be bleak on bleak. If you were doing a comedy about cancer, it might be too flippant. But a musical manages to sit productively between the two.

What’s your musical background?

My education was in experimental music, and from there I started working with dancers then moved on to theatre. So I do large-scale dance productions and experimental theatre productions and straight plays, and primarily at the moment, I’m doing music in a theatrical context, rather than a concert or recorded context.

What’s the musical style or approach for A Pacifist’s Guide to Cancer?

In some ways, it’s jukeboxy, although the songs are all original. The show has several characters who’ve all got their own musical identities. We switch styles and musical theatre genres throughout the show, and without giving the game away, it’s that – the musical theatre form – that begins to break down during the show, as the relationships with cancer become more complicated.

What’s it like working with Bryony Kimmings?

I’ve worked on all of her shows for the past four or five years. Bryony and I always work together organically and she’s amazing. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone ever recognises it, but all of her shows could be looked at as musicals. There’s a lot of music and singing, as well as musicalised drama. She comes from a performance-art background and she manages to do it in a very engaging way. I think our collaboration has been working towards a full musical for quite a long time.

This is your first musical and you’re going straight into the National Theatre with it. No pressure! How does that feel?

It’s brilliant. They’re obviously taking a punt on us, but they’ve been very supportive. It’s a testament to the tenure of Rufus [Norris, the artistic director] that he’s willing to do things like that. We’re actually starting off at HOME in Manchester for a week then the Northcott in Exeter for a week, then we’re at the National for seven weeks. It’s exciting!

How collaborative is the process with the National?

Rufus has set up a workshop for playwrights and composers – eight playwrights and eight composers – and we’re very happy to be taking part in it. We spent a week together in January and we meet once a month to share ideas and workshop aspects of musical theatre composition and writing. It’s been an invaluable part of the process for me to learn about how musicals have been put together historically.

We’ve had some incredible people speaking to us, including Stephen Sondheim and Oskar Eustis [artistic director at the Public Theater in New York], and Joel Fram, the musical director of Wicked, is one of the course tutors.

How was it being coached by Sondheim?

Sondheim was amazing. It was so inspiring to hang out with him. He has integrity and insists on a clarity of narrative. He had really insightful things to say. Like in the Platform talk he gave [at the National Theatre with Rufus Norris], someone asked him what kind of music he listens to and he said he only ever listens to music he’s never heard before. I thought that was amazing!

What’s your own experience with musical theatre been?

To be honest, although on paper the idea of musical theatre is fantastic, I’ve never been that impressed by the experience of it! But I’m going through this learning process to find out why that might be.


The company rehearsing for A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer. Pictures: Sarah Ainslie

There’s an awful lot of pressure on the music in musical theatre that – to my ears – often leads to quite a disappointing end result. Often with musicals, from a music perspective, you end up with a kind of simulation of music rather than music itself. There are many reasons for that: like issues with volume, the microphones, with the way the music needs to be rehearsed, and the process of getting the music together in the first place… Put it this way, it’s a very different process to getting a band together, for example.

With A Pacifist’s Guide, I’ve tried to be more faithful to a way of making music that I’m more familiar with, rather than writing a load of music over a couple of years, then having a bunch of sight-readers turn up two days before the show opens and handing over some B-flats at the right speed.

What do you think is wrong with typical musical theatre shows?

I love the idea of musical theatre, but for me there’s always something lacking in its production. That sounds incredibly conceited of me, because I love Sondheim, for example – he’s a fantastic songwriter – and I’ve had some great times watching musical theatre. But I think it can be better. What a dreadfully conceited thing to say! I don’t think I’ll be the first person to make it better, but I think we’re trying to do something different with this show – not in terms of how we approach things generically, but in terms of how the music is put together.

So how will your music be different to what we might expect at a musical?

One of the main ways in which this musical is potentially different is that I’m working with a sound designer called Lewis Gibson, who I’ve worked together with for about 20 years since college. He and I sort of have interchangeable roles, because we’re both composers and sound designers and we both make theatre shows as well as compose for them.

The way that we’re interacting together – the way that the composition is working with the sound design – means that we can, for example, embed how loud the music is into the composition, so those worlds aren’t entirely separate: what speakers the sounds come out of, where the music is coming from, how the sound design is constructed.

That allows us to be more creative with the global sound load of the musical. So even if what you’re hearing is generically all over the place in terms of its music, the way the sound of things develops over the piece is much more classical in the typical musical sense. It’s not necessary to do with melody or harmony, but how it comes through the speaker.


Tom Parkinson has collaborated with acclaimed performance artist Bryony Kimmings (pictured) on A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer

One of the drawbacks of working in musicals, as opposed to gigs, is that you need absolute vocal clarity, which reduces the scope for getting visceral volume out of the band. If you want to have both – which is what we want – the sound design and the composition have to be extremely integrated.

What musical forces will you be using? Orchestra? Band?

We’ve got an onstage band that we’re building into the show, so they’re not just an added extra – they’re part of the action. There are five musicians in all, so not an orchestra as such, but they’re all fantastic instrumentalists.

And, crucially for me, they’re also all composers. I really wanted to work with people who make music themselves, that have that kind of mindframe, rather than just being virtuosic sight-readers, if you know what I mean. Even if they’re not actually involved in writing the music, they know what it means to be creative at that level.

I’ve been working with some of the individual musicians and the MD – who’s a wonderful pianist and composer called Marc Tritschler. He has a similar background to me, although he’s 10,000 times better at playing piano than me. He’s got a background in experimental music, as well as having a great ear for songwriting. And then we’ve also got a guitarist who’s also been with us throughout the entire process called Jon Gingell, who’s worked with the National a lot and also has a great ear for sound.

Have you had any personal experience with cancer?

When I was first asked this question, it seemed I didn’t have a deep, first-hand experience, but when you look under the surface you realise that everyone has been touched with it in some shape or form. In some way, I owe my existence to cancer. My grandfather died [from cancer] very young and that left my grandmother to emigrate to England, where my dad was brought up and he met my mum. A lot of friends have also lost people close to them.

I’ve heard rumours that there might be cancer sufferers in the show…

I’m not sure I can confirm that 100%, but the plan is that real cancer patients will appear in the show. I’m not sure where we are with that at the moment, but that’s the plan. We’ve done various workshops and always had people with cancer speaking and taking part, and we’ve worked their stories into the presentation.

How have the cancer patients reacted to the material?

We’ve made the show out of conversations with people who have cancer or who’ve been affected by cancer. We’ve involved these people from the outset and shared material with them. We’ve talked to them about the kind of material that they’d like to see and the kind of material they haven’t seen before in relation to cancer.

There are quite dominant cultural narratives around cancer, and we want to present alternatives to that and the only way we could do that was to involve people with cancer and ask them what they’d like to see on stage, and what cultural narratives about cancer they thought were lacking. The people we see onstage are based on real people who’ve been with us throughout the process. It’s very, very affecting.

* A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer runs at HOME in Manchester from 20 to 24 September and at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter from 28 September to 2 October, before previewing at the Dorfman in London’s National Theatre from 14 to 18 October and running until 29 November.

Tickets for A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer are available HERE.


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