Emily Garside's new play, Don't Send Flowers, opens at The Gate Theatre in Cardiff this September. She talks to Miro with the cast about the overall process:

A new play by Emily Garside, Don’t Send Flowers‘ premiere production by Clock Tower Theatre Company opens in Cardiff this week, before going on to Wolverhampton and Oldham.

A dark comedy about coping with illness and loss, be it your own or someone else’s. Don’t Send Flowers offers a refreshingly honest look at living and dying with cancer. And how cake, if not a cure for cancer, is a pretty effective placebo.

Here we catch up with writer Emily Garside, actors Ffion King and Tom Lloyd-Kendall and Clock Tower founder and producer Steve Bennett to talk about life, death and cake:

Don't Send Flowers
James Scannell, Ffion King & Tom Lloyd-Kendall

How would you describe Don’t Send Flowers

Ffion: It’s a play that takes a very candid and honest look into how people’s lives and relationships are affected by cancer. It doesn’t stray from the reality or devastation that it can cause, but it also shows how lives don’t just stop after diagnosis. 

Tom: It’s a very human approach to the topics covered – it brings people together. Of course, a sense of humor will go a long to making a situation manageable. So, expect tears and laughs.

What has been the most challenging part of the process for you so far?

Emily: Editing the thing! I am the theatrical child of Tony Kushner, for which I can only apologise, at length…

I think also for me, in writing it and then rewriting it, I had to accept a shift in my life personally that effected how I came at the characters. I started as Grace and ended writing from John’s perspective more, which was therapy in itself.

Ffion: Research into those whose lives have been affected by cancer has been both incredibly poignant and very distressing simultaneously. 

Tom: Trying to find the right balance of getting across the drama as well as the humour and human nature of the play.

Don't Send Flowers
Ffion King & James Scannell

How have your personal experiences with the themes of Don’t Send Flowers influenced your approach to the play?

Emily: I wrote this as a hybrid of experiences, so there’s a mix of me and my life in all three of the characters. A lot of it, you do have to have lived to give voice to.

Ffion: It’s useful to have some sort of first-hand understanding of what the character might be experiencing in different moments. Equally it feels very important to differentiate between emotions I might have felt to the ones that Grace feels.

Tom: My dad was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and luckily came through his operation, rehab and treatment without any worries. We as a family came together to support, but we found the fun side of dealing with an illness like that, and it made a difficult situation a lot more bearable.

The play deals with some quite dark and challenging themes. Were you worried about how to approach them and how audiences will respond? 

Emily: I worry that it will divide people, which isn’t always a bad thing. I think some people will be horrified by my dark and twisty sense of humour. But I think others will warm to it. There’s still a terrible taboo in talking about death in our culture, and my characters take it to the extremes of dark humour at times – that won’t be to everyone’s taste. I worry for friends seeing the show who have been affected by similar things, but I also hope it’s as cathartic in the watching as it was in the writing. 

Tom: I wasn’t worried about the topics as cancer has affect a lot of people and families, so I’m sure there will be people that can – and will – relate to it. In terms of approaching it as an actor, the main factor I was thinking about has been trying to make the situations real, truthful and believable.

Don't Send Flowers
James Scannell & Ffion King

What has been the most fun?

Emily: Collaborating with our director Ashley Cummings. Getting to bounce ideas around and reshape the thing I originally made in a collaborative process with someone I trusted implicitly, then handing it over to him and saying ‘go and play’… that’s the most fun a writer can have.

And baking so many cakes for read throughs, meetings, auditions and rehearsals! Baking is my therapy.

Steve: The most fun part for me was the auditions, seeing so many talented people all in one room and having such a great choice for roles was incredible. We’re very lucky with the talent pool we have in South Wales and the cast for this production proves that.

What would you like an audience to take away from Don’t Send Flowers

Emily: I think a sense that there’s no right way to respond to the extremes life sends you and that it’s ok to respond badly, or not know how to respond. And also that friendship in the strangest of places is sometimes exactly what you need.

Steve: I’d like an audience to walk away and be inspired to talk to people about the content of the play, but also to just talk to their loved ones or even strangers. I think this play teaches us that strangers can sometimes just be friends you haven’t made yet, but also that we should treasure our loved ones while they’re here.

Ffion: The coffee/ cake friend dates should be implemented into everyone’s life!

I hope that people see the love and friendship shared between these characters despite extremely challenging circumstances. They might not deal with everything in the most productive or sensitive way, but that care for one another is never truly forgotten. I feel like there’s something in that to take away. 

Don't Send Flowers

And of course, the most important question – What is the best flavour of cake? 

Emily: Coffee cake. I’m a writer. I need caffeine to survive. I also need cake.

Steve: I’d have to say a really good, moist Victoria sponge. Butter cream and jam. Simplicity at its best.

Ffion: Chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. I reject all other answers. 

Tom: Can’t beat a classic so love some Victoria Sponge. Any and all cake is brilliant though!!

Don’t Send Flowers plays at The Gate in Cardiff on 6 and 11 September 2019, before touring to Wolverhampton and Oldham. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the theatre company’s website.