A triumph in theatre and raising awareness: Backbone review



For some it was just another night at the theatre, however my personal experience with the Anthony Nolan register left me with high expectations of Backbone – and I was not disappointed. The effective nature in which the message of this play was depicted could truly save lives. Touching, informative and persuasive, Backbone was profoundly moving.

Written by Joanna Alpern and directed by Katherine Weight, Backbone tells the story of cancer sufferers seeking bone marrow transplants and the people surrounding them. Alpern was approached to write the play by a fellow student in support of the Anthony Nolan register after seeing Alpern’s previous play Wolf Whistle, and the result can only be described as simply inspiring. We meet Delilah (Jennifer Grace) and Oscar (AJ Brennan), current sufferers who are struggling with their personal emotions as the disease takes hold of their frail bodies. The play explores different issues sufferers face in the reality of the disease: Delilah obsesses over her appearance while Oscar struggles to come to terms with his sexuality from the confines of his hospital bed.

The character Fiona (Suzanna Swanson-Johnston) undergoes a magnificent emotional transformation as Backbone covers many perspectives of the disease. Fiona’s self-obsession gradually fades to a self-awakening when she realises she can make a difference by becoming a donor. Her mutable character left the  audience with a prevailing thought, emphasising the overarching message: ‘[A life could be saved] even if one of you was a match and chances are, one of you is.’

Possibly the best performance of the night was by Jared Liebmiller in the role of Ian, the boyfriend of Fiona and a trainee doctor. The audience laughed and cried  with him through a series of soliloquies about the pains of cancer victims and of the worries, severe tiredness and distress of those who care for them. As he relayed the story of a young doctor who tragically fell asleep at the wheel of her car and died as a result, the audience came to fully appreciate the devastating effects that illness can have on humanity; those who suffer are not only those with the disease.

Backbone portrays how cancer not only changes peoples’ lives forever, but changes the very essence of their being as well. We were reminded of the harrowing information that some are left without any hope of a cure, and the crippling emotional and physical drain this causes. Symbolism was used outstandingly – from the black dragon in ‘Rapunzel’ spreading it’s malignant wings whenever and wherever it felt inclined to, to the central image of the single hospital bed emphasising the solitary mental state of the cancer patient. Tasteful humour adequately balanced out the harrowing message; however, there is no doubt anyone could forget the real purpose of the play. As filmmaker Jack (Alexander Gillespie) said: “It’s not funny- it’s not drama either.”

Despite some minor lighting issues and a few over-acted characters, Alpern’s Backbone was an undisputed triumph of both writing and acting. Through deeply mindful acting, each of the characters was portrayed with the pride and dignity that those affected by cancer deserve in the telling of this story. Without a doubt, this piece of theatre has accomplished its goal in raising awareness of the Anthony Nolan register, encouraging fellow students to sign up and save lives.

Student society ‘Marrow’ will be holding a recruitment evening on Wednesday October 15th in School 1 in St Salvator’s Quad from 6pm-8pm for any student wishing to learn more about Anthony Nolan.


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