Hope is a difficult word to say with cancer says The Eulogy of Toby Peach writer
- Credit: Archant
Toby Peach has battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma not once, but twice. His award-winning Edinburgh Fringe show charts his journey. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage found out more.
“I was born on 18th December 1988. I dressed up as a bandicoot once. I was diagnosed with cancer 3,322,000 minutes ago...” - so begins The Eulogy of Toby Peach, at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Studio tonight.
The highly highly-acclaimed, five-star, award-winning Edinburgh Fringe show is the tale of his journey with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes which he faced aged 19 and again at 21.
“I actually ended up driving to the hospital on my own (that first time) - I was so sure it wasn’t anything serious. This was a big mistake as I would soon find out,” says the theatre maker, performer and director.
“My girlfriend, Kristie, had told me the day before ‘it was definitely not cancer’. When the doctor told me the only words I could get out was ‘is that the thing where I lose my hair?’- a very superficial thought but one that is very common. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“I was taken to a private room and called my mum to come pick me up - there was no way I could drive now. My next phone call was the worst - I called Kristie and told her ‘you were wrong’- yep, a great move.”
He admits to knowing nothing at all - probably like a lot of people at the time - about the disease. It was one for “older people” that he remembers seeing on charity signs an awful lot. Toby was more prepared for it the second time.
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“Although it was going to be a lot tougher, my mind was a lot calmer. It was caught really early, because I was having regular checks, so all the news was positive - ‘we’re going to blitz it this time’.”
That’s not to say there weren’t moments both times when a eulogy may’ve been a real possibility for Toby, on the BBC Arts Fund’s Ones to Watch list in 2015.
“I didn’t sit there and map it all out, but the thoughts popped up. I would listen to music in my room and have the radio on constantly. I would find myself thinking ‘that would be a good song for a funeral’. Sadly for the show it was a B-Side song on an Elbow album that I picked called Dear Friends - go have a listen, it is perfect - no one would know what it would be so we decided to find a way to convey that search into a scene.
The show is billed as a discovery of self-mortality, exploring his true story and an important and difficult subject in he hopes a refreshing, insightful and humorous way.
Studying community theatre at East 15 when he was diagnosed, Toby was performing but had moved away from theatre acting. He suddenly realised he had to be the one who performed this the show and “stupidly” made it a solo show - an art form he’d never encountered.
Making was part catharsis, part about helping others on the same journey or who, sadly, will face it in the future.
“I wanted to know what happened in those important months in my life and it was all a blur - I had tried to run away from it. When I started researching, Cancer Research said it was one in three (who’d experience some form of the disease), then that was updated to one in two. I realised this is a disease the majority of us are going to experience either directly or indirectly and so I thought we should know what it is and why and this is the difficult part to say - there is starting to be an element of hope with a diagnosis.
“Hope is a difficult word to say with cancer but I pose the question ‘why am I still here?’ at the start of the show and the final answer is the ‘hope’. For me the shocking thing for me when I began researching was that cancer was just me - I was doing it to myself. So if I was doing it - who was saving me?”
Toby found the outside eye of director David Jackson, who helped him shape the show, pivotal.
“I went to him with lots of writing and he provided the audiences view from the offset. He would circle parts he found interesting and he didn’t know. Things I would see as mundane and normal shocked him. The fact you shouldn’t kiss when you have high-dose chemotherapy - I thought everyone knew that.”
David would then ask Toby what he wanted to achieve for the whole show and for each scene and hold him accountable with his writing. If the scene wasn’t achieving that and Toby was going off on a tangent or getting caught up in sentimentality side he would tell him.
“The clearest example of that is my family’s role in the story. They don’t feature in the eulogy yet they were fantastic throughout, but their inclusion took away from the other strand, the love story. To make the story accessible and engaging for a theatre audience I had to make tough decisions. The key though was to be truthful and to keep to those aims for each scene.”
Toby’s been blown away by the responses from audiences, especially from those directly linked to cancer.
“Everyone has their own unique story with cancer and there is no denying The Eulogy is my story, but I have been astounded to discover so many people have resonated with the story. I performed for the Teenage Cancer Trust and the audience was 300 young people and their support networks and it was an unbelievable experience - to know it meant something to that audience meant it the world to me.”
The show is intended to be a celebration of life. Toby wanted to talk about the wonders of our bodies and the science that saved him. He also talks about the realisations of being ill and the effect that can have on you.
“When you realise your mortality at a young age, at any age I expect, it changes everything when you realise THIS, the wondrous world, and everything that is beautiful about it isn’t a given.”
He hopes audiences leave with a better understanding of cancer and what lengths we have gone to, and must continue to go to, to beat the disease - and, as the NHS faces such difficult times and cuts, how much we may need it.
I can’t leave things without asking why he was dressed as a bandicoot?
“I have never been asked that. It was a jungle party at university and I went as Crash Bandicoot and my friend went as Dr Cortex. I put lots of apples (Wumba Fruit) around the house and went to collect them. It is, by far, the best fancy dress I have ever done.”
The Eulogy of Toby Peach starts at 7.45pm tonight at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Studio. More tour dates will be announced soon.