SICK! Festival is currently revealing and debating some of our most urgent physical, mental and social challenges in venues across Brighton and Manchester. Launched in 2013, the festival’s third outing explores some key aspects of life and death and how we survive them (or don’t). Colin Hambrook went to a show about sex and cancer with Brian Lobel
Brian Lobel is one of those performers who will always insist on breaking taboos and challenging audiences to reflect on stuff that we would ordinarily experience as a conversation stopper rather than a conversation opener.
As part of the invite to the Sex and Cancer party there was an email lottery system in place with a request for audiences to describe their relationship to cancer when submitting a ticket request… the point being to get a range of people in the room. With the current statistic of 1 in every 2 of us bound to get cancer at some point in our lives a focus for the event was just what a wide experience of illness is encapsulated within a small six letter word.
I first saw Ball and Other Funny Stories About Cancer at decibel in Manchester in 2011. It came to Marlborough Theatre, Brighton and Liverpool’s DaDaFest in 2012. As part of an ongoing show Brian has been delivering on the impact of having had and survived testicular cancer, he felt it was time to open the conversation up with an audience. Hence Sex, Cancer and Cocktails. What the event delivered was in all respects unflinching and informed in terms of the depth and detail of what was discussed; and irreverent and humane. Who else could or would use ‘cancer’ as a part of a chat up line... and succeed in his mission? It’s that incorrigibility that makes Brian so fascinating.
Possibly one of the funniest moments of the evening was hearing Brian explain the numbers of audience members who have felt his genitals as part of the tour of Ball and Other Funny Stories About Cancer… he has an endearing knack of pushing things to the limit and taking embarrassing stories and turning them into a way of acknowledging the fragility of our humanity using humour.
Brian will always hit upon the disarming truth of the situation and offer it as a gift. So the evening was a chance to talk about the virtually total lack of acknowledgement of the importance of sex (except in terms of fertility, as though the only value attached to sex was the continuation of the species) within the healthcare industry. It was an opportunity to talk about the breadth of conditions that are encompassed within the word ‘cancer’ and the do’s and don’ts of having or trying to have sex whilst undergoing treatment for cancer.
The conversation unfolded with presentations from Dr. Ali Mears, Consultant Physician at St. Mary’s Hospital, Beth McCann, Adolescent Clinical Nurse Specialist ad Jessica, the proprietor of a local sex shop. There was a marvellous moment when Beth, whilst explaining the details of when a low platelet count will make anal sex dangerous, suddenly turned to ask Brian why he was smiling so broadly. “I’m just delighted that this conversation is happening”, was his spontaneous reply.
Both Ali and Beth’s case studies illustrated the important role sex can play in an individuals recovery from chronic health issues. There is a history of disability arts performance that challenges taboos around sex and disabled people, but to my knowledge Brian is the only performing artist who has specifically sought to open up a dialogue on how disabling the impact of the taboo on cancer can be.
There is a long way to go… and long may Brian Lobel further the discussion through the art of conversation.
The SICK! Festival continues in Brighton and Manchester until 25 March. Please click on this link for details.