Living with cystic fibrosis is something that Charlie Merriman has had to come to terms with, and is subsequently now giving audiences a bit of an insight into this through his solo show, Wonder Drug. With a brand new medication release coinciding with a global pandemic (and a few other issues to contend with too), there is plenty to discuss packed into just an hour. Through an injection of comedy, charm, wit, and excellent song choices, the show is meaningful and memorable.
My full review of the show can be found here:
Read on to hear about Charlie's experience and how the piece has come to fruition.
Please may you talk a bit about your show and what audiences can expect?
As the title suggests, Wonder Drug is a comedy about my experiences with cystic fibrosis (CF). CF is a medical condition that causes a build-up of sticky mucus, leading to a wide range of symptoms that affect the whole body, especially the lungs and digestive system. The show focuses on March 2020 to June 2021, a particularly bizarre time for me - I had just started seeing a girl called Sarah, but then not only did I have to start shielding when the pandemic hit, I also had to learn how to administer my own intravenous antibiotics at home for a separate CF bug. So, terrified of scaring Sarah off, the audience helps me come up with absurd excuses, lockdown TV starts to infect the play with game-show sequences, there are animate antibiotics, singing syringes, even politicians in their pants - and it’s all set to a soundtrack of 80s bangers!
How has it impacted you, developing such a personal piece to share, and did the storytelling aspect come naturally to you?
Writing the piece, it was almost as if I was in a vacuum - I started to forget that all these things had actually happened to me, they were just events that my character in the play was dealing with. But then in rehearsals in front of my director for the first time, the reality of it all came right back and it felt very exposing, initially, and nowadays I’m sort of halfway between those two places - I’ve developed a healthy detachment even though I sort of feel like I’m reliving these things on stage. For the same reason, the storytelling aspect did come naturally - the period covered in the play was uniquely awful for me, to be frank, and it was only two years later that I thought ‘This would make a great play’.
How was the writing process, and what are the benefits and challenges with making the performance for yourself to star in?
I really enjoyed the writing process overall, though it did involve grappling with the various complex emotions I felt during each experience to turn those experiences into scenes in a play - even if those scenes happen to be funny, what the audience sees is just the tip of the iceberg. So, as above, it initially felt very exposing to perform, but the flip side of that is you develop a really trusting relationship with the audience - it’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced with an audience before, and I hope the audience feels the same about how they relate to me as the performer.
Why is discussion about cystic fibrosis so uncommon, and how important is it to provide education on this?
I’m not sure why discussion of cystic fibrosis is so uncommon - it affects around 11,000 people in the UK and 100,000 globally. I felt that the advent of Kaftrio, the ‘Wonder Drug’ of the show’s title, was the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of CF - since Kaftrio launched here in 2020, it’s been game-changing. For example, I used to do chest physiotherapy for half an hour twice daily, but now on Kaftrio I am very fortunate in only having to do physio for 5 minutes in the morning. More broadly, there’s been a significant reduction in CF hospitalisations the world over thanks to Kaftrio. So I think Kaftrio and CF are currently uniquely positioned as a wonderful example of what medical research can achieve - Wonder Drug shows you exactly the sort of thing your charitable donations go towards, be it for CF or other illnesses. However, Kaftrio is not the answer to absolutely everything in CF and around 20% of people cannot take the medicine - all the more reason to show important medical research is.
What influenced you to make this a comedy despite the serious subject, and how did you work on making medical terms understood by those watching?
Right from its inception, the show has been a comedy. That’s partly just a reflection of my personality and the sort of story I wanted to tell, partly because of the happy ending that Kaftrio fortunately provides. Mostly, though, I think it’s time we redressed the balance when it comes to narratives about health. All too often - and understandably - they tend to be solemn, but I believe an audience is far more likely to form a strong emotional connection with such subject matter if they are given the opportunity to have a laugh first.
How has the piece evolved since its creation, and where would you like to take it going forwards?
We’ve had two runs of the show so far, the first at VAULT Festival in February which sold out, prompting the second at King’s Head Theatre. The audience at the King’s Head was much closer to the stage, which made the experience more involved and intimate for everyone, and based on the configuration of our Edinburgh Fringe venue this summer I’m really excited that we’ll be able to provide the same intimate experience for our audiences there - we’re Upstairs at the Pleasance Courtyard. Who knows what will be next for the show after Edinburgh - I’d love to take it elsewhere in London or even internationally. I’m also really interested in developing it for screen as I have a lifetime’s experience with cystic fibrosis and far, far more material than could ever all fit into a 1-hour show!
Who would you consider to be your hero?
Great question! My heroes are my parents - this show is really a testament to the way they have raised me. They’ve never wanted me to be defined by my cystic fibrosis: we are all people first and foremost, and any other label such as ‘disabled’ is secondary to that. Thank you, Mum & Dad, for instilling this tenet in me, which is the fundamental message of the show.
Huge thank you to Charlie for his lovely responses, and sharing more about Wonder Drug, which is such a beautiful and funny reminder to never take our health for granted. Best of luck for your Edinburgh Fringe run, and everything to come beyond.
Tickets on sale soon!