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
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: