The story of a young woman finding out she has breast cancer doesn't suggest material for a comedy show. Yet Beth Vyse's autobiographical As Funny As Cancer was one of the stand-out performances at this year's Edinburgh Fringe and now transfers to Soho Theatre after two nights at the Museum of Comedy.
Vyse has built a reputation over the last few years portraying eccentric character creations and so As Funny As Cancer seems like a marked change in comedic direction. This however is to underestimate the show's variety in which she houses — with technical dexterity — a raw story mixed with surreal turns. As Vyse puts it: "This show is all true but the performance goes back to my theatrical background as much as comedy. It's all of me."
The show takes the audience on her journey from growing up in the Potteries to her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and why she turned to comedy following her diagnosis. It's vivid in the kind of details that, after an hour, seem like they could only come from Vyse's life. After all, few could claim both cutting a school cookery class and an endorsement from Nelson Mandela as steps on their career path, but this is exactly how Vyse got started: "At school I was in a class where they tried to make me cook but I couldn't be bothered so I pretended to cry. I was sent to do drama after that."
Soon after, Vyse was selected as part of a theatre project from Northwest England to tour South Africa, working with students from the townships of Soweto. There she met Mandela who remarked on her powerful voice and performance: "You look back on things and think 'oh that was good.' But I didn't really stop and think about these things until I had cancer."
When talking about her close-knit family or the culture shock of mixing with more thespian types, she always chats amiably, whether describing her visit to a certain Doctor Who's bedroom (to find out exactly which Who you'll have to see the show), or falling in love on a number 12 bus on its way to Camberwell.
The relationship from London Transport (rather than the TARDIS) is the one that forms much of the story in As Funny As Cancer, especially in the difficult decisions and dilemmas Vyse and her new partner faced when she was diagnosed just a few weeks after they met. Her partner is called Michael Jackson by the way, and Vyse naturally doesn't pass on her comedic duty to portray these struggles as if with his moonwalking high-pitched namesake. As mentioned, the show interweaves raw honesty with absurd comedy.
Breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer in women under 40, though there are only about 200 new cases in the 25-29 age group (out of a total of 50,000 cases per year). Diagnosed at 28, Vyse sometimes found it hard to find fellow sufferers who weren't several decades older than her: "When you have cancer everybody tries to encourage you to go to group sessions. Many of the people there are in their 60s or 70s. All we really had in common was cancer."
For Vyse, the main source of support came from her family. Her father often travelled from Stoke to Shoreditch just to drive his daughter the ten minutes for appointments to Homerton hospital, before heading back north again. "My Dad is a quiet guy," she says, "I'm from a family of women and we could talk because breast cancer is such a feminine disease (though a small number of males do get it); Dad had to do his own thing and support me in his own way, which was driving or, to put it another way, to be there."
Sometimes the whole family would convene for post-appointment visits at the Cat and Mutton pub on Broadway Market: "I think lots of people have a 'cancer pub' where they can go with family and friends after an appointment at the hospital. You can't quite face going home straight away and putting the kettle on — it'd feel a bit weird."
"I needed to learn to deal with cancer my own way. I didn't want to go on any skydives or anything like that," she says of those who suddenly feel the need to seize the day that way. "But I did want to go into comedy and it shielded me a bit. I think comedy is my skydive."
After five years, and now with the all-clear, Vyse thought it was time she talked about it on stage. Despite the decisions cancer forced her to make and the changes to her life, her attitude remains typically grounded: "In the end you have to get on with it."
Beth Vyse: As Funny As Cancer now plays The Proud Archivist, 2-10 Hertford Rd, N1 5ET, 3-5 Feb, 7:45pm, Tickets, £5.