Some subjects are just too serious for the comedy treatment, aren’t they? It’s a theory tested by actor turned comedian Beth Vyse with As Funny As Cancer, a stand-up show about her diagnosis five years ago with aggressive breast cancer, aged 28.
She makes a strong start of it, welcoming audience members in to the Otley Courthouse theatre in character as a surrealist Dolly Parton, distributing ping-pong balls for future audience participation and cheerfully cajoling the more gregarious of us to sit in the front. With previous stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in various TV programmes Vyse is comfortable occupying a role. As staff make a laboured effort at ticket tearing and Nine to Five plays on loop, she occasionally breaks from character, holding court with witticisms until finally we are all seated and instructed in a singalong.
Audience participation is always a risk but for Vyse’s show it is paramount. She further enlists the help of two people to stand in as her boyfriend Michael Jackson – a name ripe for musical piss-taking – and the consultant who delivered the diagnosis. Inflatables and water pistols make an appearance too.
Once stripped of her Dolly Parton alter ego Vyse treats us to some very funny anecdotes about her life in London before cancer, so that when the time comes to find the lump I cringe inwardly. I’ve experienced breast cancer first hand and I’m having treatment for secondary cancer now.
Some of it is not funny but simply poignant and very true – wandering thoughts of her cancer’s effect on her family while lying in a MRI scanner, unspoken worries. But a lot of it really is laugh out loud – awkward gown experiences in that MRI and the amusing reactions of family members (“the Waltons on alcohol”) on moving back to her home-town of Stoke-on-Trent.
By the time we leave – some with broad smiles, some with tears in their eyes, most with both – Vyse has built a pretty impressive atmosphere of solidarity and positivity that a show on any other subject, or by any other comedian, would not have managed. We nod as Vyse reminds us “if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry” and we drop money in Cancer Research buckets. Some stay behind for tearful thank-yous and to share their story with someone who won’t think them weird for seeing the funny side.
Unlike with other stand-up shows my boyfriend and I drive home from As Funny As Cancer in silence, tears in our eyes. Eventually my rendition of Earth Song, rewritten by Vyse using a pointless remark made by her Michael Jackson, lifts the mood though. “Oh god,” my boyfriend says. “I’m pretty sure I said that when you were diagnosed.” We both laugh.