Half of the UK population born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Considering this figure, cancer rarely features as the primary subject matter in theatre, though last year there were several productions that put it at the forefront. I caught two of them in Edinburgh: The Eulogy of Toby Peach and Goodstock. James Hartnell’s debut play, Beetles From the West, is also driven by a diagnosis. Set in a hospital waiting room, immature Boyd waits with his girlfriend for news of his father’s health after a sudden collapse that’s left him unconscious. A young doctor’s attempts to explain what’s going on are aggressively questioned as Boyd comes to terms with what it all means. Hartnell’s script, obviously early career from its unwieldy text and underdeveloped characters, spotlights the importance of cancer screenings but it needs more development to have greater impact.
A combination of flowery, metaphor-filled monologues directed to the audience and simplistic scenes between the characters attempts to show range, but they are so dramatically different that they seem spoken by different characters. Dialogue paints Boyd (Ryan Penny) and his girlfriend Jenny (Amy Doyle) as immature and ignorant young teenagers. Their monologues have a more mature gravitas, but these contrasting tones don’t reconcile. The transitions in the writing are abrupt and jarring, creating an unconvincing baseline reality. Hartnell has a sense of dramatic arc and a satisfying ending that suits an awareness piece, but individual scenes and monologues sit clumsily within it. The script does manage not to preach, though.
There’s little subtlety or depth in the characters despite their dialogue, but Penny, Doyle and Matthew Marrs as the doctor attack them with gusto. Penny also directs, and favours heightened performances – though this might suit the language, it clashes with the thematic content. It’s an interesting choice, but not one that consistently works. There are some moments of good chemistry, particularly when the doctor reveals details of his own past – though highly unprofessional and unlikely to happen in the real world.
Beetles From the West shows cancer isn’t a battle, it’s a disease we are just as likely to get as not. It reminds us to monitor our mental and physical health and have symptoms investigated, something men are more likely to neglect than women. This is definitely a men’s health play, though it doesn’t alienate women. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t do the themes justice or give the performers properly developed, meaty roles.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.