Reviewed – 8th November 2019
“Alone on stage for sixty minutes, Hesmondhalgh holds the attention effortlessly”
How do you cope with a cancer diagnosis when you are only twenty-three and on the brink of a new life full of possibilities? If you are Rosa Hesmondhalgh, you write a frank, yet funny blog about your experiences, and then turn that material into an inspirational one woman show that plays to packed houses at both the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and then in London at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.
It’s 2018, and Rosa has just graduated from drama school. She’s made resolutions about taking better care of her body, and “making some really good art.” She’s got a promising sounding date on Tinder, and it goes really well. But something—isn’t quite right. Dismissing the symptoms as just gas, Rosa waits to go to the A and E until she can ignore them no longer. What follows is the stuff of nightmares, but in Madame Ovary, Rosa guides us through an unforgettable experience of love, loss—and epiphany.
Alone on stage for sixty minutes, Hesmondhalgh holds the attention effortlessly, but it’s not just because of her uncompromising look at a disease that is well known for forcing an awareness of one’s own mortality. She meets the audience head on dressed in yoga clothes, using her body as well as her words to tell her story. It’s an ongoing joke that her increasing difficulty in doing the yoga poses that are supposed to make her healthier are some of the things that alert her to the inexplicable changes going on in her body. Her humour helps lighten the seriousness of the situation, but also preps us for the education that is about to commence.
It’s truly remarkable how much medical information this show delivers while focusing on the more relatable aspects—meeting the people, and their supporters, for whom the struggle to survive is all too real. Hesmondhalgh’s approach is to focus on the ‘F’ words—family, friends, and the future—in a way that doesn’t negate the pain or the brutality of the treatments that rob her of her hair and more significantly, her ovaries. In her “new normal” where connections may be brief, she, and we, discover that they are nevertheless important and well worth the effort. It is this awareness of paradox in the writing that makes Madame Ovary such a satisfying evening in the theatre, despite the difficulty of the material. When at the end of the show, the actress declares “I’m not better, but things are better” she succeeds in helping us to understand both the uncertainty and the faith in that statement. It’s an impressive achievement.
Madame Ovary is well worth your time if you can get to see it, so keep an eye open for opportunities. It’s a show that should be revived often—as long as battles against cancer are still there to be fought, and lessons to be learnt on how to take on this ancient enemy—and win.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Pleasance Theatre until 10th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: