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Lucy Light: The comedy that wants to revolutionise how you look at female health

13th March 2019
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Opening tonight (Wednesday 13th March) at Vault Festival in Waterloo, Lucy Light is a comedy that tackles the weightiest of issues - cancer, death, and life-changing medical decisions, all set against the ever-reliable rock of female friendship.

Image credit: MILROYD

If you think that this subject matter is ripe for dark comedy, well, you’d be right. Lucy Light follows the eponymous title character and her best friend, Jess, over ten years, taking in Lucy’s mother’s breast cancer, illness and eventual death, Lucy’s discovery that she has the BRCA mutation, and her own decision to have preventative surgery at the age of 26.

Lucy Light comes at a time when women’s stories are being told more than ever - from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s genre-defining Fleabag to The Bold Type, another comedy that focuses on huge, tough decisions that young women have to make.

27-year-old writer Sarah Milton, who first started writing Lucy Light in 2015, tells me about the play, and what it stands for: “The cancer doesn’t dictate her life;” she says, “it’s just the shadow of it. As humans we don’t sit and revel; we try our best. Particularly in England, we don’t talk about our pain very much. There is that, of them just having the shadow of this diagnosis and this experience running through the play.”

She adds: “All of it has stemmed from my female friendships, and conversations that I’ve been having for ten years. I’m fortunate that I’m still best friends with a group of women that I’ve known since I was ten years old, and it is very much that lived experience together. We’ve been best friends for about 17 years now. We went to the first wedding of the group last year. It’s like being with your sisters. They are my sisters.

“It’s definitely mapped by them in terms of the conversations that we’re having, and then it’s just laced with this BRCA experience, of having to physically remove the things that identify you as a female. The removal of your breasts is such an intimate thing, particularly at such a young age, when you’ve only just become really comfortable with the body you’ve grown into.”

Sarah continues: “I ended up writing the last scene first, which is post surgery, and about Lucy and Jess having a frank conversation about what this means for their lives. Then this play just sort of… fell out of my fingers.”

In this version of the play (it was first staged in 2017), the title character is played by Emmy Rose, Sarah’s friend from drama school and her partner in new production company MILROYD. MILROYD (“sounds like some sort of dodgy cream, I know”) launched at the end of last year and comes from a nickname given to Emmy and Sarah whilst they were at drama school.

It’s powerful symmetry that the play was born of intense female friendships - and of course it is entirely centred on one.

It’s also a happy coincidence that Lucy Light is being staged as part Vault Festival, the two-month celebration of art, comedy, theatre and cabaret that culminates in March, which is also Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The opportunity to stage a play centred on female health, utilising the expertise of gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal, seems to have fallen at exactly the right time - and Sarah hopes that its message is one that will resonate.

A particular aim, for Sarah, is to encourage women to take control of their bodies and their health - particularly when it comes to cervical screening, which has returned to its previous low uptake rate after the fading of the “Jade Goody effect”.

So, are there reasons why girls and women might be embarrassed or reluctant to take control of their own health in a decisive way?

Sarah is clear: “We have a lot more in the pot,” she says of female health, and “it can be quite difficult to navigate. It can be quite difficult to recognise symptoms.”

Also, “We’ve never been given ownership of our bodies. Historically we’ve always belonged to a man, to be helped and to be looked after, and that is so ingrained in society.”

She adds: “I could speak for hours and hours about this sort of stuff.”

In the end, we do.

Image credit: MILROYD

Talking / not talking

Like most young women, female health wasn’t something Sarah paid particular attention to - until a cervical smear at 21 (a local trial; smears routinely start at 25) came back inconclusive. It was this, alongside a colleague having laser surgery on bad cells, that led to her becoming suddenly very aware of her own feminine health.

Lucy Light, although not a direct result of these two incidents, bears them in mind - and Sarah hopes that it will generate conversations that might not have been easy to navigate before.  

When it comes to feminine health Caroline Presho, a BRCA mutation carrier who works with The Eve Appeal and has had preventative surgery to lessen her risk of developing cancer, believes that “we need to talk about it more, and not make it as much of a taboo. Women are terrified of it, because - I think - they don’t know what it (a smear test) is and why they have to have it.

“Let’s just talk about it. Let’s use Jade Goody’s experience - (it’s) such a sad story, but it’s a really common story."

Also: “We need to talk more about HPV. It doesn’t mean that you’ve slept around, or whatever; some people just have the virus. You can just have it.”

Human papilloma virus (HPV) can in some cases lead to cervical cancer in women and anal, penile, head and neck cancer in men. Currently girls aged 12 and 13 are vaccinated against HPV on the NHS, but vaccination for adult women and men has to be carried out privately and costs around £300.

Ovarian cancer is entirely internal, and for this reason has developed “the silent killer” moniker. Of gynaecological cancers where there are warning signs, Caroline says that “the symptoms are so similar to IBS - bloating, and pain, and wind, and women just go “it’s because of something I ate, it’s because I drank too much wine last week, it’s the time of the month” ...which is why women are more likely to be diagnosed in hospital, with acute symptoms, because GPs put it off.

“Any gynae awareness is important, because women - and men - don’t talk about anything to do with their genital regions, because it’s terribly embarrassing. We don’t say the word “vagina”.”

She points out an incident on Good Morning Britain, where she was asked not to say “vagina” in a segment about symptoms of the menopause.

Is this getting better? Does it feel like the revolution is coming?

Sarah says: “I definitely feel it, particularly in younger generations, that it’s perhaps moving forward. Me and my friends, we talk a bit more frankly, about periods and things.

“I live with two men… I’ve lived there for two years now, and the conversation has definitely shifted, because I’ve come in and been unapologetic about my experiences, in my home.”

Caroline believes that “we must talk to our teens about these things - to both genders.”

It’s important to note, too, that everyone has the BRCA gene - it’s the mutation that leads to cancer and can be carried, and passed on from parents (including fathers) to their children, and yes, to their sons as well as their daughters. “Having the gene” rather than “having the mutation of the gene” is something, Caroline says, that the media frequently gets wrong.

Something that’s almost entirely overlooked, too, is that men can carry and pass on the mutation. It’s not something that is purely female, and it’s not something that many people know about it.

“Men bury their heads in the sand,” Caroline says; “they say “we don’t have breasts or ovaries”…but men are at risk of prostate cancer. They need to know if (they’re) choosing to have children.”

Knowledge is power, and testing positive for the BRCA mutation means doctors are likely to advise on surgery - something that is a central part of Lucy Light, and something that is likely to be a hugely traumatic decision for a young woman - often in her 20s, often younger - to make.

“I think theatre is a really wonderful way to bring really important narratives into discussion,” Sarah says. “I don’t believe theatre is there to answer any questions; I think it’s there to evoke them.”

She adds: “In terms of theatre being able to evoke those conversations; being shut in a dark space feeling like you’re the only one hearing that story can really trigger evocative conversations afterwards.”

Of course, the tapestry of women affected by this surgery is hugely varied. Caroline tells us about her friend, a trans man in the US, who had had breast cancer as a woman, and about lesbians she’s met who have decided against having reconstructive surgery. Trans men have to go to female clinics for their check-ups, because the practicalities haven’t caught up with society, and thus inclusivity suffers. People stare in female clinics.

Also, not everyone chooses to have reconstructive surgery, as Sarah says: “And that’s something that I’d really like to stress in this play, people choosing not to have reconstructive surgery. That’s fine, and allowable. This is just an example of a experience, it’s not there to answer a question, (but) to evoke questions about female bodies and female experiences. It is an example.

“There is a line in the play where Lucy, just before she has her surgery, says to Jess that she’s worried about not being a girl…. (but) of course she is.”

It’s a line that has caused debate, Sarah says. Caroline questioned it; her immediate reaction, as a person who had gone through a double mastectomy, being an angry one - because “Well, I’m still a girl”.

Caroline says: “It really evoked something in me, and I remember feeling “No”.” Her feelings changed, she said, when she saw the play - and realised that it was only one person’s story.

***

Staging female narratives

This production of Lucy Light is led entirely by women - something that Sarah feels is directly reflective of the story that is being told.

Image credit: MILROYD

She says: “It’s very important for us that we bring female narratives to the forefront of theatre, that we engage with female creative teams - we’re very proud that we’re all female identifying on this production. Female lighting designer, female operator, female actors, female writer…

“When we first came on I had an offer from a male director and a male producer, and when you’re starting out you say “yes, please put on my work, I want my work to be on” - and they did an absolutely fantastic job; they both identified as feminists, they were really good at being engaged in conversations, very comfortable, and made a safe space.

“But I feel like as we’ve experienced right now, having this conversation, there is a whole world of female experience that could be applied to this play; really diverse female experience. So it’s exciting that we’re engaging in 100% female staff.

“I feel like we’ve never been given female-only spaces, and in terms of embarrassment, there’s less embarrassment of a female body in front of another female body in a male-owned, male-led world. Creating female-only spaces can only be a positive thing for females.

“And I don’t think that means we’re excluding men. Men have always had their male-only spaces - golf, for example, was a male-only sport. Gentlemen’s clubs… there are all of these spaces that are created only for men.”

As a female playwright, Sarah says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to escape a female narrative. It’s so important to me that we are writing about women and giving a space to women and the female experience, because it’s just completely dominated by male narratives and male stories.

“I’m always asked, “What made you think that you could write about BRCA when you’re not a BRCA carrier? And I always wonder if men are ever asked that. I wonder if Mike Bartlett was ever asked how he felt he could write a scorned female GP, in Doctor Foster.”

Or any other interior story that they can’t possibly have direct experience of…

Sarah agrees: “I think it’s about having human sympathy, empathy and compassion, and the willingness to learn about the subject you’re writing about - the willingness to envelope yourself completely, and having conversations, and enriching your own education on a subject. I think as a writer I’m a very empathetic person; I try to write with compassion and understanding.”

Spreading the message

Spreading the message of Lucy Light - of female health, and the importance of being aware of, and as much as possible in control of, it - is a priority for Sarah and her team after the run at Vault Festival has ended. One aim is to see the play discussed and performed in schools - particularly those whose demographics are swayed towards being more at risk. Caroline, an Ashkenazi Jew, reveals the terrifying statistic that one in 40 people in the Ashkenazi Jewish population carry the BRCA mutation.

“We’d love to tour the play around high population Jewish schools,” says Sarah.

Caroline is hoping that progressive communities, like JW3, the Jewish community centre in North London, will be interested in staging the play.

Meanwhile, as Sarah says, conversations are becoming more open. The Eve Appeal is looking into whether women might, in the future, be able to have hormone management or other treatment, rather than invasive preventative surgery. Lucy Light will be added to a list of new plays that is regularly sent out to secondary and drama schools, where the demand for young female roles is high and both the quality and quantity of roles is lacking. The screening age for the BRCA mutation has recently been lowered from 35 to 30, meaning thousands of potentially at-risk women can now be screened earlier.

These are all things that are working, whether anecdotally or practically, to move us forward when it comes to female health. Hopefully lives will be saved as a result.

_________________________

Lucy Light is working with The Eve Appeal, the UK charity that offers services and advice for those affected by gynaecological cancers. Find out more here.

Lucy Light is being staged at Vault Festival, Waterloo, from 13th - 17th March. Find tickets here.




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