Sitting down in the Burton Taylor theatre in Fifth Week, the last thing one might be expecting is a lecture. But that is what the audience of Brain Freeze is initially met with. The play opens with Michael Freeman’s Oncologist delivering a university lecture on brain cancer, which plunges the viewer into the play’s topic by assaulting them with medical terms and statistics.
It feels, I imagine, like the tiniest fraction of what writer-director Debora Krut must have undergone when she was diagnosed with brain cancer, an experience she has dramatised in this original play. As well as framing the play, the Oncologist’s lectures feature as interludes to a story which is otherwise focussed on the unnamed ‘Patient’ and her close circle as she navigates the emotional rollercoaster of diagnosis, particularly its impact on her sex life. Brain Freeze is a play about cancer, but it’s also a play about intimacy, whether a sexual encounter, two drunk friends curled up in bed, or the strangely formal yet intensely personal intimacy of doctor and patient.
The production is seamlessly executed, and never over the top, heightening this quiet but powerful sense of closeness. A minimal set of bed and stools pulls us directly into Patient’s life, whether her struggle with sex post-treatment or her regular check-ups. Sound and lighting is subtle but effective, particularly the invasive beeping of radiation therapy which plays whenever Patient is confronted with a particularly stressful situation. It’s a clever nod to cancer’s impact on her life, even as she is beginning to reconstruct it. I did feel that the use of recorded voiceovers to resemble text messages was a little awkward in parts, creating uncomfortable silences between dialogue. However, I warmed to the technique as the play progressed, as the use of voiceovers did allow the actors’ talent to come across, when we are forced to focus on their expressions, body language, and reactions. This is used to hilarious effect in a sexting episode early on — credit must be given to whoever coordinated the play’s more intimate scenes.
Indeed, Brain Freeze is a play that thrives in its silences. Whilst Krut’s writing shines throughout, it is in the spaces between the words that the acting is strongest, whether as Patient sits in bed after her diagnosis, or Boyfriend waits for her to come out of a crucial appointment at the play’s climax. These directorial touches show a careful attention to detail from Krut, and real talent on the part of the cast. Each actor thrives in their role. Freeman is clearly having the time of his life playing the Oncologist, whose emotional distance is both a pro and a con for Patient. His interactions with Grace De Souza are poignant, dramatising the struggle of experiencing the medical establishment, though we sense a more emotional, personal side in his lectures, particularly when he discusses the difficulty of patients dying.
De Souza is moving as Patient, a protagonist who knits the play together, but I particularly enjoyed Emma Pollock as Best Friend and Peter Todd as Boyfriend. The two endeavour to support Patient in their own different ways as she goes through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, a process which brings humour as well as pain – I’m still wondering exactly what was at the bottom of Best Friend’s bag of sex toys… Brain Freeze drew both laughter and tears from me, perfectly toeing the balance between comedy and emotional drama. I would have liked to see more of the three Nosy Bitches, who provided a hilarious interlude and one which drove home the insensitivity masquerading as care with which people treat cancer patients when they send self-centred ‘thoughts and prayers’. But it is just an interlude, and I did wonder whether we could have seen the trio earlier in the play.
In a cast post on Facebook, Todd wrote that the best thing about working on Brain Freeze is the way it presents cancer in a ‘fuller way’, and as more than a ‘plot device’. I have to agree. Yet the play’s skill and power lies in more than its depiction of cancer. Brain Freeze may be autobiographical, but the play is more than just an act of catharsis; it is clear Krut is writing with passion and talent as well as from experience. I look forward to seeing what she, along with her talented cast and crew, do next.