Studio – The Vaults
Reviewed – 18th February 2020
“Hesmondhalgh maintains a comic buoyancy throughout, allowing for the story to move on from the inevitable darker moments”
At 23, Rosa has decided this is going to be her year. She is going to get fit, she’s going to make good life choices and she’s going to write a show as good as Fleabag. Easy peasy. But whilst she’s been busy yogaing and dating and thinking about thinking about starting to write, unbeknownst to her, her body has been taken over by cancer. After a couple of weeks of painful bloating (trapped wind, she guesses) she drops into A&E, and pretty much doesn’t leave for six months.
Based around Hesmondhalgh’s own experience of a young diagnosis, she talks us through some of the physical sensations, the emotional struggles, and the essential support system who gathered tightly around her for the whole process. It’s not a ground-breaking story, but of course it isn’t, it happens to thousands of people every day. And that’s why it’s so relatable, and such a necessary story to tell.
I tend not to read synopses before seeing a show so I was genuinely shocked when it became clear this is a story about a cancer survivor, and not an out and out comedy, as the first ten minutes might suggest. But Hesmondhalgh maintains a comic buoyancy throughout, allowing for the story to move on from the inevitable darker moments. Her delivery is also starkly open and honest, sometimes painfully so, and there’s a very relatable sense that she’s trying to keep it light, trying to keep it funny, but that her experiences won’t let her. She also makes great use of her only prop, a projector screen, on which she plays with Tinder, Whatsapps, neurotically Googles (can I have IBS and still poo) and, the pièce de résistance, receives a personal message from Louis Theroux which makes me as happy as if he’d sent it to me. Even though it’s overtly present in most people’s lives in various forms, technology is often left out, or used really bizarrely in the arts, so it’s refreshing to see it included realistically.
With a story like this, the obvious arc concludes with a new lease on life and everything somehow being better than before. Hesmondhalgh tries to steer away from that, touching on her PTSD, meditating briefly on her now absent ovary, and returning to the hospital to visit a fellow cancer survivor only to discover she didn’t survive.
But she can’t quite resist a soppy ending, finishing off with a montage of photos and videos of friends and family during her illness, and of course the much beloved Louis Theroux’s well wishes. Sure, it erases any edginess from the show, but it’s also evidence of the ardent community involved in this near-on tragedy – something you can’t really express in a fictional tale.
Maybe it’s not as good as Fleabag, but Hesmondhalgh has created something worthy in its own right. A comic tear-jerker with a real-life heroine at the centre.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon