Every person who has ever been diagnosed with cancer asks at some point “What do I do now?” and “How can I carry on?” While the ‘tropes’ of behaviour post-diagnosis are familiar to people as the five stages of grief, there is a world of difference between being ‘intellectually aware’ of such things and ‘living in the thick of it’…
Two years ago, at the age of 26, Phoebe Frances Brown was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour in the area of the brain that controls speech, language and memory. This diagnosis hasn’t stopped her from living a fufilling life in her chosen profession or negated her existence as a well-rounded human being. But while Brown has reached a ‘plateau of well-being’, the road getting there has been anything but easy…
Autobiographical in nature, Brown’s The Glad Game has been directed for the stage by Tessa Walker and the made-for-film digital edition directed by Adam Kes Hipkin. Beginning with Brown perfoming her show before an audience, The Glad Game veers effortlessly between past and present, and various locales, as Brown navigates the ebb-and-flow of memories and feelings.
Brown’s family features prominently in the show, via private footage or voiceover, and it’s easy to see why their support would be crucial – helping in practical ways, as well as maintaining her emotional equilibrium. Also offering emotional succour is boyfrend Jake who is averse to stereotypical “romantic” gestures. But when Brown experiences the darkest period in her life, he ‘steps up to the plate’ without hesitancy.
While the anecdotes pertaining to the headaches and the loss of vision are unnerving, it is the attention to detail regarding ‘feelings during events’ that pulls the audience in. As Brown reacts to the dissmination of news regading her condition, there is no attempt to portray herself in a ‘polished’ or idealised way. Here is a person who before her diagnosis was bold, confident and at the cusp of high-profile projects in her career. Later we find Brown’s very understandable reaction is anger, anthropomorphising the disease as its insidious reach over time attempts to take her coordination, capacity to communicate and dignity.
So why name this production The Glad Game? This is a reference to the literary and cinematic character ‘Pollyanna’ who made a point of finding something positive in even the bleakest of circumstances. The role of positive thinking in The Glad Game and recovery in general cannot be underestimated. In Brown’s case, a conversation with a hospital chaplain reminds her: “There are two sorts of people in hospital – those who are sick and those who become sick…”
And while wanting to be well is a natural desire, The Glad Game also shows how explaining to others that chemotherapy won’t be 100% effective is perhaps harder for others to bear than yourself. In some ways this ties in with another observation Brown makes about the seldom-discussed feelings of shame and embarrassment that comes with a cancer diagnosis: “We’ve built a society where we feel we have to apologise for being sick.”
Other productions about cancer such as Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer have also tackled this relatively taboo subject for the stage. But whereas Kimmings’ show took a surrealist route, with musical numbers and big on spectacle, The Glad Game in contrast, is more immediately relatable, as the audience vicariously ‘goes down the rabbit hole’ with Brown – from excruciating headaches and vision loss, to fearing the worst because medical staff are reticent to voice their suspicions…
I’ve seen other plays adapted as digital productions, but The Glad Game grabs the creative possibilities of a filmed production with both hands, with inspired locations and Dan Patrick Hipkin and Oliver Bury’s cinematography, which conveys non-verbally everything from the cacophonous MRI machines to Brown’s state of mind.
© Michael Davis 2021
The Glad Game ran on 24 – 25 September at Nottingham Playhouse. It will be performed again on 14 November at the Bedlam Arts and Mental Health Festival at MAC Birmingham, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH. Times and prices TBC. Macbirmingham.co.uk | 0121 446 3232.
Further tour dates include Manchester and London in Spring 2022, along with further screenings of the digital edition on demand.