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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit…

Cariad Lloyd, Kristin Milward, Cara Chase, Rob Crouch - Photo by James O Jenkins
Cariad Lloyd, Kristin Milward, Cara Chase, Rob Crouch – Photo by James O Jenkins

The Finborough Theatre has a reputation for being the venue for cutting-edge new writing and the European premiere of Halley Feiffer’s new play confirms this in spades. For make no mistake A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre of New York City is new writing and contemporary drama at its most inventive, stimulating and thought-provoking. The writing is witty and profound, the acting is nuanced and the direction is fast-paced and exhilarating

The play is a death-bed drama set in the ward of a Cancer hospital. Gallows humour abounds. The Finborough Theatre is transformed into a hospital. From the sign “welcome to our ward” over the door as you enter, to the signage on the wall – no smoking, no cell phones (this is an American play) unisex toilet and shower, the curtain between the audience and the two beds on wheels, in all these ways the feeling of a real hospital ward is created. The traditional curtain up is here mimicked with the ritual of the curtain pulled across the stage to reveal the two beds containing two patients side by side. At first, the curtain between the two beds is in place like a split screen. This device allows us to get to know Karla ( Cariad Lloyd, wonderful) as she talks to her mother Marcie( Kristin Milward, superb) about her stand-up comedy routine. “I’ve been single for so long, I have wet dreams about my vibrator”, she asks her mother if this is a good line. Quietly Don ( Rob Crouch, brilliant) has crept in and sat down next to his dying mother Geena (Cara Chase). As Karla’s thinking out aloud becomes ever more sexually explicit so Don’s expressions of bewilderment find expression in his tormented and tortured facial expressions and writhing body language. It’s a wonderful opening scene which totally enthrals and captures one’s attention.

The play has no interval and lasts 80 minutes. This works very well. The intensity and dramatic momentum keep the play on edge and us on the edge of our seats. An interval would break this spell. So hats off to the director Bethany Pitts for putting the play above the interval bar takings. It’s a four-hander but the focus is on just three. Karla her mother Marcie and Don the son of Geena (who sleeps for most of the action). Cariad Lloyd as Karla is a pocket battleship of feisty New York in your face attitude. Her sexually explicit stand up routine is hard-hitting and hilarious, at least the bits she reads out to her Mom are. (spelling Mom New York style as that’s how its pronounced here). Her fantasy of being raped by her vibrator she can justify because as she says the vibrator will always respect her safe word. In her contretemps with Don, she demands that he stop “Editing” her, and accuses him of the passive-aggressive use of “Sorry” to mean the exact opposite. It’s great stuff which brings all the culture wars and language disputes we are so wearily familiar with, ridiculously to life.

Rob Crouch’s Don is wonderfully realised. At first, he appears like a homeless person in sweatpants (tracksuit bottoms) trainers with holes and a jacket with elbows out, hair dishevelled and bearded. But it turns out he’s a millionaire tech geek who lives in Central Park West. His wife has left him for a woman, his son takes money from his account to buy drugs and his mother has days to live. He and Karla develop a friendship and this forms one of the key aspects of the play.

The eternal triangle is complete when Marcie wakes up and takes a shine to Don, thus rekindling all the fraught tensions with her daughter Karla. Marcie shows a viciousness towards Karla – get me a coffee and a new daughter she tells Don – that is shocking. Her life has had more than its share of grief – her husband ran off with her best friend, her other daughter killed herself, and after a lifetime looking after children as a social worker, she can’t afford her hospital bills. But despite all this, she has managed to keep her sense of humour – as when she mocks Don for knocking on the curtain or when she tells Karla that she knows what “shuffle” means on her iPhone – and self-respect as when she refuses Don’s offer of a cheque to pay for her medical bills.

Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, said Beckett. A Funny Thing Happened bears this out. From the grim reality of a cancer ward A Funny Thing manages to create a tragi-comedy of such power, subtlety and nuance as to put it up there alongside the plays of the master of the genre: Anton Chekhov.

4 stars

Review by Joh O’Brien

A European premiere from acclaimed American playwright Halley Feiffer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City.

Karla, a foul-mouthed twenty-something comedian, and Don, a middle-aged man embroiled in a nasty divorce, are brought together unexpectedly when their cancer-stricken mothers become roommates in the hospital. 

Together, this unlikely duo must negotiate some of life’s biggest challenges… while making some of the world’s most inappropriate jokes.

Can these two very lost people learn to laugh through their pain and lean on each other, when all they really want to do is run away?

Cara Chase | Geena
Rob Crouch | Don
Cariad Lloyd | Karla
Kristin Milward | Marcie

Directed by Bethany Pitts
Set and Costume Design by Isabella Van Braeckel
Lighting Design by Doug Mackie
Sound Design by Jon McLeod
Presented by Arsalan Sattari Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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