"I want the audience to understand a version of a cancer narrative that they might not see a lot."
In 2018, at just 23, recent LAMDA graduate Rosa Hesmondhalgh, whose aunt is actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Following her diagnosis, she started a blog called Madame Ovary where she was able to write down her thoughts and feelings about her diagnosis and on the 15th June 2018, she was able to write the wonderful news that she had been given the all clear.
Just over a year later, Rosa is preparing to take her first ever play Madame Ovary to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and it's safe to say that without a single preview, Rosa's story has already got people talking making her play one of most highly-anticipated debut pieces of theatre at this year's festival.
I sat down with Rosa in London's Soho Theatre to discuss how she'd always wanted to produce her own work, her diagnosis and what it's been like writing her debut play about something so personal.
Before we get into what happened, you've always wanted to be a performer haven't you?
Yes that's right. I'd always wanted to perform. I went to LAMDA which is somewhere I always knew I wanted to go to and it was the only drama school I got into so I was really lucky. I had the best time there, met my friends for life and just had a ball.
As soon as I graduated I knew I wanted to stay in London, because I'm from Leeds originally, and was pretty sure for the first part of my career anyway that London was the best place to be. The summer after I graduated I was lucky enough to get a job at Hull Truck Theatre which started in October so I was able to work my three muggle box office and bar jobs, knowing that I was going into what I wanted to do.
I met these amazing people there, did this incredible version of A Christmas Carol and then came back to London. Back to auditioning. I made this New Year's resolution to be a really good artist and really try, put so much effort in and do more writing. I really wanted to produce my own work.
Did you know what you wanted your own work to be?
I always really wanted to do a one-woman show, but I didn't know what it would be about. I felt so shit about how I hadn't experienced anything that anyone would be interested in, that I out that idea on the back burner in a really big way.
So I carried on auditioning for poetry slam because I'd always written poetry, so I was trying to go down that route and I considered doing stand-up. I wanted to try it all and see if there's a thing I could be better at.
I was trying lots of different whilst juggling three jobs in all different parts of London and I was really knackered all the time, but I just put that down to working so hard and not really resting from 8am until 11pm every night.
Then came the symptoms that lead to your ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Yes, it was a weird time because the symptoms were so strange. I didn't know what was wrong with me and I put it down to so much other stuff and I was so busy that I didn't really want to figure out what was wrong with me because I had so many things to do.
I didn't have a GP. My GP was in Yorkshire and I couldn't see a time where I could go back home so there were all these things getting in the way and also the fact that my symptoms were symptomatic of a gluten intolerance. I was very bloated. I had pain in my stomach. But as the month of January went on, more and more things were seeming wrong and didn't quite add up.
So I went to a walk-in centre who told me that I had trapped wind, which was embarrassing, so I stayed with that for a week or so, trying loads of different stuff. I'd cut out gluten in case that had something to do with it and eventually when the pain got too bad, I went to A&E near where I live. From there I started this 4/5 day journey of being diagnosed. I'd have a different scan every day and I'd be constantly sent back and forth doing tests and MRI's and all that stuff.
Finally, I was diagnosed in that same hospital.
What was going through your head at that time?
It was the last thing I thought of. There's always a joke isn't there, with hypochondria that you think everything is cancer. And I didn't think any of it was cancer. Even when they found abnormal growths on my ovaries, I thought it would be an ovarian cyst or polycystic ovaries because as a woman you're constantly told that your illness is to do with you being a woman - "It's period pain. It's nothing."
That's how it feels, so I was doing that. I had all this internalised shit that meant I was telling myself it was nothing, that I was overreacting and that's why I didn't go to the doctors for so long. When they told me that they'd found this 15cm mass, I was thinking - what if it's an ectopic pregnancy? I haven't been careful enough. All this stuff that was so blameful but so far away from cancer.
When they actually did say "It looks like it's this type of ovarian cancer" I was like "Right. Fuck." I didn't even think it was true until the moment they said - "We've got the results, but you're by yourself. Do you want someone with you?"
So I went "Why would I want someone with me?" - "Oh, oh I've got cancer? That's why I need my mum here." It was all very surreal. It was a shock.
When did you decide to start your blog?
I decided to write the blog on World Ovarian Cancer Day on 8th May 2018 because I'd been thinking for ages about how to tell this story, because I knew I wanted to and everyone told me that I should. But I wondered how to do that and I wondered if I should write a play straight away or do a podcast where I told the story or do a podcast where I talk to other people about it.
In the end, I didn't have the energy to do any of that shit so I thought the best thing to do was just write it down. It's easy, it's not too difficult and anyone can do a blog. I thought maybe it would be a blog where I talk about statistics and facts - 10 Things to Say/Not to Say to a Cancer Patient - that kind of thing.
But I'm not good at that stuff, I'd much rather tell it as a story, how it was and that way my family and friends who don't see me very often can read it like a story and it helps them understand it more I think.
So I did that. I thought that was the best way to do it and it was so easy to write and so fun and cathartic. I'm very hesitant to use the word therapeutic because I go to therapy for therapy and it's not about that. I'm not there mea culpaing the shit out of it. It's more about taking myself through it, remembering it and take my self out of it a little bit which is quite nice.
Were you surprised by the reaction to the blog, Madame Ovary?
It was amazing. I was completely surprised by the reaction. Everyone says that don't they? - "I didn't expect it to go past my mum and my four friends." but that's not really true is it? It's funny because the first blog and the second blog and the third blog started to gain traction because of lovely people and friends retweeting it.
It was just what I needed. I honestly felt like I was never going to come back from this diagnosis especially because of some of the ways you feel physically and mentally during cancer treatment. The knackeredness, the fatigue and the brain fogginess that the medication gives you made me wonder if I lost this bit of me forever and I worried that I'd become irrelevant.
You know what the industry is like, you fall off it and people forget you. That's just how it works. I was so terrified to admit that I needed a rest so when I did the blog whilst actively resting, it felt like people were like "You do you and we will listen."
Where did the name come from?
I hadn't shown a picture of myself on my Instagram bald, I was kind of scared about doing that, but also kind of excited. It was kind of empowering. I was very lucky in that I knew how supportive everyone was about my illness and my treatment. I knew that this picture of me with no hair was never going to attract any negativity because even if I gained 20 followers from having cancer, I don't have nearly enough to get trolled.
So I posted this photo, it was me with no hair and it said something like "On my throne." and then the hashtag Madame Ovary. I'd read the book and people use it quite a lot. No copyright here. Gwyneth Paltrow uses it for the website she runs so there's that, but also I never watched Fleabag before I got ill.
I watched it when I was ill after I started my blog and it was in her script which part of me thinks "Oh my God, great minds think alike." but the other part of me thought that everyone would be thinking that I'd ripped off Fleabag and now I'm doing a one-woman show.
But actually, you know what - great minds do think alike and I kind of love it. I put a lot about that in my show, that everyone thinks now that because Fleabag has done so well that every one-woman show after that is trying to be that. But actually she has paved the way for women, she's opened gates for all of us no matter what our stories are. We've got to be fucking thankful for that. I love her and it would be an honour to share the words 'Madame Ovary' with Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Now it's a stage show. When did you first think of turning it into a play and bringing it to Edinburgh?
I first thought about turning it into a play early, but I can't remember when which probably means it was always in my head in a weird way. After I'd done a few blog posts, different people I knew got in touch to say that if this ever had a life as a show that they would support me in whatever way they can, which was obviously incredible to hear.
That made me realise that I had to do this. But I didn't know the best way to approach it, but I knew I wanted to approach it in the right way. I wanted there to be room for me to make some mistakes which is why I thought Edinburgh would be a really amazing beginning point because it doesn't have to be perfection in Edinburgh. Then afterwards there's room for it to grow and move and change.
So I met my director Adam, who I auditioned for previously, and we've got a mutual friend who told him about my blog and asked him to read it. And bless him he did and then he messaged me and said "I see in your blog post at the end you say that you want to turn it into a one-woman show. Do you want to go for a coffee and talk about it?"
I don't know what it was but when we met it just felt right. We were on the same level as we were both quite new and starting out and I knew that he wouldn't want to take anything from my story. But he knew enough about the way to go and how to fill out all those Edinburgh forms! Artistically we're so similar and this partnership was born last Christmas and it gave me the kick up the arse I needed to finish the first draft.
How have you found the writing process?
I've loved it. I've fallen in love with it actually, in a way I never thought I could. It's often said that If you really really want something, you'll never stray from it and with acting I'd always had that. I remember reading this bloody David Mamet book and it said that if you can ever think of something you'd rather do other than acting, you don't want to be an actor enough.
I'd been so desperate to want to be an actor enough that I never followed that writing itch that's always been there. I've written privately since I was seven. I've written a diary almost consistently every single week since - I won't say every day because that's unrealistic.
When I'd finally written something publicly, it felt like "Actually, I'm good at this and I love it." but this acting thing meant I can't nourish that - but actually, when I was faced with not being able to do either of them again, I just wanted to hold on to whatever it was that I like.
The writing process for the show has been amazing and I've loved it. It's been difficult obviously, not knowing how to structure it and what people actually care about and what I need to say. I have a big struggle with being honest with myself about how I feel.
When did you decide on the tone of the play?
I think we've only just decided and I don't want to say too much other than I love where it's ended up actually. In the same way that you react to a cancer diagnosis and the months that follow, it is so full of sorrow and anger and sadness but also, you've got to laugh about it and take the piss.
So I hope that we've balanced it really well and that there are so many laughs and so many hard moments. What it comes down to is it's about love really.
What would you like people to take away from the show?
I want them to feel a lot. I hope they will. I say this a lot but I really do want them to feel like they can laugh about something that isn't laughed at a lot. I want the audience to understand a version of a cancer narrative that they might not see a lot.
Whilst cancer is portrayed in the media quite a lot, I used to always say before I had cancer - "Why are we raising awareness for something that we all know about?" But actually it's a lot more than that. I realise that now.
I hope people leave going "OK. I didn't know that that's how people with cancer felt." The statistics are quite scary, one in two people are affected by cancer so I hope the people who come who have been affected in some way can take something away from it.
Who do you want to see the play?
That's a really good question. Because I'm so new I'm like "Anyone!" but I really would love people affected by cancer to come and see it. Whether that's them or a friend or a relative and feel seen, heard and listened to. That's so important.
I also want people to come who are artists who don't know what story to tell and if their story is important. There's quite a lot of pre-cancer Rosa in the play and the struggle of knowing what story you want to tell and if it's relevant and if you're relevant.
What's the significance of Louis Theroux in the poster?
I don't want to say! I just love him.
How do you feel about the buzz surrounding your show?
Amazing. But also guys, you haven't seen it yet. What if it's really bad? I don't think it is. I think it's really good, which I wouldn't say if I felt otherwise. There was a moment where I thought what if this is bad, but then I did three or four more drafts and got rid of that.
I'm just really grateful for it because people have a lot of trust in me and I don't know what I've done to deserve that. I can't feel anything other than amazed by it. I think it's probably because people have read the blog so they know that I can write and string a sentence together. I think it's just because people are lovely. I think humanity is incredible when you people supporting each other.
Let's talk about your aunt, Julie Hesmondhalgh. She's been a great support to you hasn't she?
She's been a huge support! We did Lorraine the other day and thank God she was there because she makes me feel so calm, so supported and so loved. We love each other so fucking much.
She's been incredible in helping to get my story out there. I'll always be grateful that I've got that connection and I know that not everyone has a connection like that so I have to keep counting my blessings of how lucky I am to have her.
Are you looking forward to performing it in Edinburgh?
Absolutely. Every single day I look more and more forward to it. I'm so excited! I'm so excited to be in Edinburgh and meet all these other artists that are telling amazing stories and there so many of them. It's incredible.
I've been as a punter before but I was terrified of it because so many of the shows that I'd go and see were phenomenal and I'd be one of four people in the audience. These people would be performing like they were on the Olivier and I couldn't ever imagine myself ever doing that.
Who are you looking forward to seeing perform?
I'm so excited about everything I've seen so far, it all looks like it's going to be brilliant. I'm really looking forward to seeing Honest Amy which I think will be brilliant because I bloody love her. She's amazing. I'm looking forward to seeing Love (Watching Madness) by Isabelle Kabban. it's a true story about loving your mother who has bi-polar.
I also recently saw a preview of something called Piano_Play which is all underscored by a piano. It's a one-man show and it's incredible. And I can't wait to see I'm a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings which we're all looking forward to seeing, let's be real.
Oh and Electrolyte because I didn't get to see it and my amazing friend Olivia is in it. So basically all this amazing female-led work. It's going to be phenomenal.
Finally, how would you sum up this year's show in just five words?
Cancer story you've never heard.
Madame Ovary runs from 31st July - 26th August (not 13th) at 12.10pm at the Pleasance Dome (JackDome). Book tickets here.