Red Alert – Cancer

Aug 8 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆     Real life

ZOO Playground (Venue 186): Fri 5 – Sat 13 August 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

In Red Alert – Cancer, Allan Wilson tells of his red-headed family’s entanglement with cancer in a performance that feels as close to documentary as it does theatre, at the Zoo Playground to Saturday 13 August.

Wilson is no polished performer, partly thanks to his own brush with cancer, from which he is now free. He is on stage as much to pay tribute to and in memory of his mother, elder brother and elder sister – the red-headed part of a much larger family. And in so doing, seeks out the mundane and normal.

Allan Wilson in rehearsal for Red Alert – Cancer. Pic: the Company.

It is Wilson’s utterly authentic delivery that makes this such compelling viewing. He is directed (to some extent) by the excellent Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir, who ensures that his stories have a certain dynamic element to their delivery and helps elevate this above being a simple hour-long talk.

The Wilson family arc will be recognisable to many. His parents met during the Second World War when his father was in the RAF and emigrated to Canada in 1947, where they had five children – including the red-heads Ian, Heather and Allan. There is even a cine film of them playing in the sun.

However, such banality hides intriguing unexplored elements. Redundancy brought the family home to Scotland and, when Ian moved away, the throwaway comment that he “spent a year living off the proceeds of gambling on the horses” is never followed up.

There is more detail for Heather’s life in Stockbridge in the 1970s after Art College. Allan was a frequent visitor and there is just enough hint of the edges of bohemian life to intrigue and make it both tangible and true.


Having introduced the family, Wilson introduces their cancers. Ian had melanoma, Heather had myeloma and Allan had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Wilson talks through their brushes with the diseases in a matter-of-fact manner.

Cancer treatment is full of strange terms and procedures. And yes, Wilson does use slides. And a slightly perturbing furry toy mole to help leaven their delivery. There are pictures of the three siblings and he reads much of his script off cards. His once-good memory is shot, thanks to his radiotherapy.

This is about as basic a fringe production as you could want. But while Wilson seems to be asking for the correlation between the red head gene and all cancers – not just the recognised skin cancer – to be explored, he is humanising what cancer is for those of us who have it, or who have survived it.

My own family is far from red-headed but I am living with a cancer which can only be kept in abeyance. So Red Alert – Cancer could have been a triggering performance, but as Wilson talks of the processes we have both been through it is a relief to hear them discussed in such a basic and mundane manner.

With the unspoken message that cancer is normal: live with it, this is as close to the heart of the fringe’s founding open-access ethos as you could want. It is no vanity project, nor is it therapy. It is the story of the life we all live.

Running time: One hour (no interval)
ZOO Playground (Playground 1) High School Yards, EH1 1LZ (Venue 186)
Friday 5 – Saturday 13 August 2022
Daily: 11:30.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Show Twitter: @RedAlert_Cancer


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