‘Wonder Drug’ at VAULT Festival review – Cystic fibrosis comedy is clever commentary on chronic illness’ cyclical nature


There’s a whole lot of heart put into Charlie Merriman’s debut one-man show Wonder Drug. 80s bangers, classic gameshows and elaborate props star in this clever and chaotic chronicling of the writer and performer’s experience of living with cystic fibrosis, and his hope that a “wonder drug” known as Kaftrio will help deal with the buildup of mucus in his lungs.

Only there’s a couple of problems: a deadly pandemic’s kicked in which is making dating his girlfriend particularly difficult, and he has to remain as ‘healthy’ as possible while awaiting the arrival of Kaftrio. If that sounds like a considerable number of plates to keep spinning, then that’s because it is. Fortunately, Merriman manages to dash through it all with an amusing bubbliness. Taking intravenous antibiotics is gamified, the names of medicines are given suitable punny characters and audience members are asked to think of excuses to give to girlfriend Sarah when a surprise hospital visit is on the cards. It’s TED talk meets stand-up gig meets quick change show (yes, with those weird medical privacy screen curtain things). It’s wonderfully whimsical.

Eventually, though, all the giddiness to mask the stress of a chronic illness gives way to the meeting with a psychologist Charlie keeps putting off. There’s plenty which is brilliantly unique about Wonder Drug – I mean, when are you going to see two syringes full of antibiotics sing parodies of 80s tracks for the audience’s votes – but there’s something particularly novel and refreshing in exploring mental health alongside a physical health condition, perhaps because representation of disability on stage has so often been encouraged to be shown through a limiting ‘how to/101’, inspirational or pitiful narrative.

And in conveying a range of emotions and characters, Merriman is certainly a talented, diverse performer. He nails a Boris Johnson impersonation with a wig and his typical guttural muttering, and his smiling, lackadaisical Matt Hancock is just as scarily accurate.

Once all the endearing comedy is done, the sheer mental and physical exhaustion hits hard. Is anyone really surprised when one considers the fact cystic fibrosis also leaves individuals with a limited lung capacity?

At one point we’re forced to watch Merriman speed through the daily lockdown routine of watching TV, washing hands and going to sleep, going around in a loop for a bit too long, but that’s rather the point. In fact, certain tidbits from the dialogue pop up again later in the performance, in ways which are fantastically full-circle. It’s a well-rounded production, and I’ll stop with the circle puns now.

Though with all this focus on the cyclical, lose-lose nature of living with cystic fibrosis, I was at one point apprehensive that Wonder Drug would seek to strike a pity narrative despite all of its whimsical and absurdist comedy, but so cleverly connected and self-referential is Merriman’s storytelling that the production’s final note takes us right back to its opening premise. In amongst all of the challenges a disability such as cystic fibrosis (and the cocktail of drugs which follow) can present to an individual, it’s the support network and care of those around us which certainly helps in those trickier moments – and love is the greatest wonder drug of them all.

Wonder Drug: A Comedy About Cystic Fibrosis is now playing at VAULT Festival until 16 February.

It will then be streamed online from 2-3 March, in the middle of a run at the King’s Head Theatre from 28 February to 12 March.

Photo: Charlie Merriman.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Wonder Drug’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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