Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Toby Peach: The Eulogy

By | Published on Tuesday 16 February 2016


Loads of great stuff is on at the ongoing Vault Festival, and ‘The Eulogy Of Toby Peach’ is no exception – we know because we first came across this funny, endearing, poignant and informative show when it was part of the Edinburgh Fringe last summer.
Toby Peach created and performs the show, which tells the story of his experiences of going through cancer at a young age, and examines the science of what exactly cancer is. To find out more about the play, and about Toby, I put some questions to him, ahead of his London run.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the content of the show? What can we expect to hear about?
TP: ‘The Eulogy of Toby Peach’ is the story of my journey with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes, which I faced at the age of 19 and again at 21. From diagnosis to remission, relapse and treatment, ‘The Eulogy’ showcases a young man’s journey with cancer in this honest, fascinating and inspiring exploration of modern science and the wonders of the human body.

The audience join Toby as he enters the (not so) exclusive Cancer Club; sample chemotherapy cocktails, select the perfect funeral play-list and marvel at Willy Wonka’s life-saving stem cell machine. The Eulogy is a discovery of self-mortality and aims to facilitate a conversation on this difficult subject in a refreshing, insightful and humorous way.

CM: What made you want to create a show about your experiences?
TP: I developed a short story for BAC’s London Stories back at the end of 2013, it dipped into my journey with Cancer and it was the first time I had decided to speak about it.

The response was fantastic and I decided I wanted to delve deeper into that world as I realised I had no idea what had happened; this life-changing event , yet I had no idea what had happened. It was all a blur. I realised that I didn’t know what cancer was. This thing that nearly took my life and I had no idea.

If, hauntingly, it is now 1 in 2 of us who will experience cancer, shouldn’t we know what it is? As it became apparent that cancer was just me, then how am I still here? This question prompted a deeper exploration and with it came a discovery that I wanted to share.

CM: How do you think you have managed to make such a difficult subject into something that entertains?
TP: How we make this show accessible, whilst importantly being respectful, has been at the forefront of my mind when making this show. I’ve been working with an outside eye in director Dave Jackson since the start and he has helped me unpick the true stories to make them enjoyable to watch whilst not losing any of the truth and the message I want to convey.

I think it is the honesty throughout the show that allows the entertainment – it is only entertaining to make sure the audience come to see it and stay. I’ve been so pleased that cancer patients who have come to see the show have enjoyed watching the story and supported it. Performing it in front of 300 young people and their care teams at Teenage Cancer Trust’s conference ‘Find Your Sense Of Tumour’ has been a highlight of this journey with the show and their reaction, along with all the other audiences, has made the creation and delivery of the show worth it.

CM: Does staging the show mean you go through it all again…? Is it emotionally wearing, or cathartic?
TP: It has elements of being both cathartic and wearing. I found making the show quite tough, bringing up lots of old stories and diving deeper into some of the darkest moments of my life but delivering the show in Edinburgh was incredible.

In the show I pose the question ‘How am I still here?’ and that is the same question I have been asking through the process and so when I get to the end of the show and find the answer, there is an amazing cathartic release. I don’t want to spoil the end, but the answer is not what I expected to find when I was living those stories. There are of course stories that are hard to bring back, and perhaps I would have left buried if I hadn’t chosen to perform the story, but we felt if I shied away from those stories then it wouldn’t be being respectful and honest to everyone else who is experiencing cancer.

CM: Who is the show aimed at? Do you want to educate people?
TP: The show is aimed at facilitating a conversation on cancer, definitely, and I think education does come into that. When I realised I had no idea what cancer was before, during or after I had it I knew that had to be one of the aims of the show – to explain what the hell cancer is!

As it affects so very many of us, I wanted to make something that prepared us for the inevitable: we will be directly or indirectly linked with cancer in our lives. The show is for the cancer patients, and their support networks, of the past, present and future, and sadly that is the majority of us.

Alongside the education, the show wants to talk about the hardest word to talk about in cancer – hope. In 1947 Sidney Farber started trialling chemotherapy on children with Leukemia. A disease that had no chance of a cure. 62 years later I was diagnosed and was given an element of hope. We’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go, but I think we need to focus on the hope to push forward.

CM: According to the biog on your website, you are a “Theatre-Maker, Director, Actor and Facilitator” – can you tell us a bit more about what you do, and what elements of it you do most?
TP: Theatre-Maker, Director, Actor and Facilitator- sums up a man who likes to dabble! I graduated from East 15 with a BA in Community Theatre and quite quickly fell into a number of different roles as I tried to find out what I wanted to do. Since graduating I’ve dived into the world of adventures and playful theatre with a wide range of ages, believing theatre should be a unique experience that actively inspires its audience.

More recently, 2015 saw me named on the BBC Performing Arts Fund’s ‘One to Watch’ list and complete my BBC Fellowship in Community Theatre with the The Old Vic. I worked extensively with Old Vic New Voices and was an Assistant Director on the Old Vic Community Company show ‘Ages’, then followed that by being an Associate Director for the Community Company Writers rehearsed readings as part of the OVNV Festival. Directing popped up there and has continued as I’m currently working with the fantastic young people’s company Islington Community Theatre.

I am regularly called upon as a facilitator, and am currently making an outreach workshop to accompany ‘The Eulogy’ on its tour, thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust, Arts Council England and the National Lottery. The workshop focuses on how creativity is saving lives, and aims to allow participants to unpick their own Eulogy.

I wear a number of hats in the theatre world but it comes down to wanting to make works that attempt to change the world for their audiences, and I’ll wear whichever hat that needs to be worn to do so.

CM: How did you get into this? What steered you towards a career in performance?
TP: My first performance was when I was 15 in my school production of ‘Under Milk Wood’ – I had some great talcum powder in my hair and a slightly iffy welsh accent as the Reverend Eli Jenkins.

My life within the arts took off though when I was accepted onto the Community Theatre course at East 15. I went in with thoughts of stardom but quickly realised that Hollywood would not be for me, and am extremely grateful to my course leader for thinking that too and putting me on the Community course.

The course set me up to want to make my own work for audiences and got me involved with theatre makers Coney, who I am now an associate artist with. Coney’s support throughout the years have been pivotal to my continued development in the arts.

CM: Are you working on any other projects at the moment? Do you have anything new in the planning stages?
TP: ‘The Eulogy’ is currently the main focus but a project looking at the UN Climate Summit agreement is in the pipeline, and there are plenty of other ideas swimming around…

‘The Eulogy Of Toby Peach’ is on at Vault Festival from 17-21 Feb, see this page here for more info and to book tickets.

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Photo: Richard Davenport