With a title like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, Halley Feiffer’s play definitely attracts your attention. First performed Off Broadway at the MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre, before a run at the Geffen Playhouse in LA, it now has a limited run at the Finborough Theatre in south west London, starring Cariad Lloyd.
Karla is a stand-up comedian, and though she’s a frequent visitor to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, her mother is often asleep or incredibly drowsy – so she uses the time to work on her “bits”, talking them through with her unresponsive mother. But on this particular day, little does she know that she’s got company… Behind the dividing curtain sits Don, also at his mother’s bedside, and getting increasingly concerned about the lewd language emanating from the hidden side of the room. After a rocky start, Don & Karla get to know one another a bit better and keep each other company while their mothers rest. Their unlikely relationship (she’s crude & self-centred, he’s middle-aged and getting hit hard by a messy divorce) provides some much-needed stability in their lives, but will Karla and her mother ever end up seeing eye to eye?
Given the setting and the subject matter (a cancer hospital and a fair amount of death), the play is rather dark – but in spite of all that it also manages to be incredibly funny. As the Benjamin Franklin quote goes, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”, so it feels rather natural to try and poke fun at it where you can; Marcie (Karla’s mother) is definitely on board with this approach (“just practising dying”). It also puts the American health insurance system under the spotlight, highlighting why it’s so vital to have free or at the very least affordable healthcare for all – something Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock should take note of before the Tories dismantle the NHS even further.
It runs pretty slickly, coming in at just over 80 minutes with no interval. Isabella Van Braeckel’s set design easily transports you to a hospital ward, and the clinical curtain across the front of the stage assists with scene transitions – using that along with music does make transitions a bit more dynamic than a dull blackout.
The role of Geena (Cara Chase), Don’s mother, does feel like it could maybe be expanded upon, as it feels a bit of a waste to have someone there just sleeping and barely talking for nearly the whole thing; thankfully Marcie’s input increases as the play goes on, and is played well by an acid-tongued Kristin Milward.
The focus is largely on Karla, and how she manages her relationship with her now very ill mother, as well as Don to a slightly lesser degree. Rob Crouch imbues Don with an everyman quality, making him eminently likeable in his chaotic shabbiness. By contrast, Cariad Lloyd’s Karla is a bit more difficult at times, though her behaviour becomes far more understandable as we learn about the challenges life has through at her – Lloyd makes Karla’s frankness and straight-speaking incredibly funny, contrasting entertainingly with Don’s more reserved nature.
My verdict? A very dark but very funny play, showing grief and family relationships in all their variety – Cariad Lloyd and Rob Crouch make an entertaining pair in the lead roles.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City runs at the Finborough Theatre until 27 October 2018. Tickets are available online or on the door.