For those of us with limited tolerance for plays about cancer, all is not lost. Playwright Stuart Slade seems not to care for them either. Because, although Glee & Me is exactly that – a monologue about Lola, a 16-year-old diagnosed with glioma multiforme, a terminal brain tumour – he does everything he can to resist the mushiness that can come with the genre.
“Couldn’t face the snot and the wailing and the endless sentimental platitudes,” says Lola, explaining why she kept her condition secret from her classmates. It is sound dramaturgical advice too. Of course the situation is sad, but wallowing in it gets us nowhere.
Instead, Slade takes the opposite tack. This teenager is smart, flippant and funny, anything but indulgent. Yes, the diagnosis causes her to take stock and, yes, there are days when she wants only to curl up on the couch, but her jet-black humour rarely deserts her. One of the best punchlines concerns the death of a fellow patient.
It means Glee & Me feels more like a thought experiment: if you were given a limited time to live, it asks, how would you spend it? As any adolescent would, Lola thinks first of sex, then of solving the mystery of life and, finally, of what either of those things might mean in practice. At its best, this is a play about life and how we live it, not about death in all its inevitability.
Liv Hill is brilliant as Lola. She plays her as a brainy teenager who veers between shrewd and smartarsed. She’s perceptive one minute, gauche the next and always funny, even at her bolshiest. Director Nimmo Ismail paces the piece with high sensitivity, catapulting Hill about Anna Yates’ carpeted set with its cleverly concealed compartments, before reining her in for moments of contemplation. Her sex scene is a masterclass in comic economy.
All this makes for a witty and warm-hearted celebration, but a story like this has just one way to go. However much Slade resists cheap emotion, the death of a teenager can only be sentimental. What next after the “snot and the wailing”?
• At the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 30 October.