Though cancer is the subject matter this is not a battle narrative; what doesn’t kill you doesn’t by default make you stronger: it makes you sick and bald and miserable, it eats up time that you’ll never get back. The first piece of the night, Ball, is not a survival story (the fact that he’s in the room relating his experience says enough); Lobel is not out to inspire nor is he out to make his audience weep. Instead he describes his diagnosis, his response to it, and the subsequent ravages of chemotherapy, with honesty, humour and warmth. It’s often very funny – especially when he’s explaining what it’s like to jerk off in a cryogenics facility (malignancy and masturbation, he observes, are not words that usually crop up in the same anecdote) – but it’s also tender and raw.
Lobel evokes the clash of emotions that come from having to deal with serious illness at a young age, at any age, and having to grapple, not just with his cancer, but with other people’s assumptions and anxieties about it too: he spent a lot of time reassuring and comforting others. And it wasn’t enough just to get through it and get better, he had to emerge victorious, triumphant. Cancer was something to be beaten and defeated, hurled to the ground and trampled upon. Lobel dons a Lycra cyclist’s jersey to make his point. Cancer has not turned him into Lance Armstrong.
The second piece of the night, Other Funny Stories About Cancer, digs deeper into the mess of the situation, the knotty, tangled stuff, both sexual and medical – the fear and loathing – that didn’t quite fit into the first piece. He examines the differing societal reactions to his cancer – the good kind of cancer, the right kind of cancer – and to illnesses like AIDS. Sex was already up for discussion in Ball – as a 20-year-old gay virgin just what constituted the ‘normal sex life’ his doctors kept reassuring him he would still enjoy? Here, he recounts his many awkward attempts to rid himself of his virginity, and the joyous if unexpected moment, following the major abdominal surgery that might have made him impotent, he found himself getting off to Miranda from Sex and the City.
The final chapter of his trilogy, 2009’s An Appreciation, provides a playful coda to the evening. Lobel asks five audience members to come and appreciate his equipment. These five volunteers are each given a shot of whisky to drink before they glove up; then Lobel drops his trousers and invites them to have a feel. In the context of the performance such a request seems entirely apt. Lobel has already laid himself bare and he’s taken care to create a comfortable, relaxed and open environment. The actual moment of handling is brief, but somehow both intimate and clinical, tender and awkward. It brings home the physical reality of the things he’s been discussing: the body as a source of pleasure and pain, a changing, aging wilful thing, your ally and your enemy. Each volunteer is given a piece of paper and asked to jot down the word that encapsulates the experience; one says ‘squidgy’, another ‘scary’, the final one simply reads: ‘wow’.
Reviewed for Exeunt