Comedy equals cancer plus time

Inis Nua Theatre Company presents Rosa Hesmondhalgh’s Madame Ovary

2 minute read
Williams, a Black woman with short blond hair, holds up a banner that says happy, with a doubtful, reticent expression.
Sincerity and authenticity: Satchel Williams in ‘Madame Ovary’ at Inis Nua. (Photo by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios.)

This review needs a content note about the show up front: Madame Ovary might be upsetting to those who have lived through traumatic medical events or have watched loved ones go through them. This Inis Nua production is specifically about ovarian cancer, but my friend, whose chronic illness required lifesaving surgery last year, had a hard time getting through the show. That said, if you have the emotional fortitude or distance to see Madame Ovary at Fergie’s Pub before it closes on Sunday, November 19, it’s worth an hour and a half of your time.

This is a one-person show, with local performer Satchel Williams standing in for playwright Rosa Hesmondhalgh, who wrote the play about her own experience as an ovarian cancer survivor. Hesmondhalgh was diagnosed with cancer in her early 20s, shortly after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and began blogging about her experiences, which led to the play.

It can be challenging to take a work that was written as a first-person, autobiographical performance and hand it to an actor who doesn’t share the same lived experience. It’s a testament to both Hesmondhalgh’s writing and Williams’s performance that this production works. I never found myself questioning Williams’s sincerity or authenticity, even knowing that she hails from Brooklyn, not the UK. Director Charlotte Northeast and dialect coach Leonard Kelly surely deserve some credit here for extracting the best from Williams, who is onstage alone for 80 minutes.

Heavy subjects, light touch

Madame Ovary follows Hesmondhalgh’s ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment: she covers the devastation of chemotherapy, the near-death experiences of treatment, and the “new normal” many patients encounter after being declared cancer-free, without pulling any punches.

Still, the show manages, frequently, to be funny. From a chronicle of Hesmondhalgh’s Tinder dating history to sardonic impersonations of doctors who treated their young patient as something of an oddity, the play isn’t without its light moments, and the audience is more than happy to have the opportunity to laugh. Don’t go into the play thinking it’s going to be 80 minutes of maudlin self-indulgence—though parts of it might be triggering for those who have gone through something similar, Madame Ovary still manages to keep things light whenever and wherever possible.

A play and a pie

Madame Ovary is part of Inis Nua’s pub series, which stages shows in local bars. Tickets to this production include a savory pie (meat, veggie, or vegan and gluten-free) and a beer or a glass of wine. As my friend observed, it’s a little strange to be enjoying a meat pie while watching the chronicle of a woman whose lifesaving treatment meant the removal of a few organs, but hey—at least it wasn’t Sweeney Todd.

The Fergie’s audience sits at shared tables, and sightlines can be tricky. It’s a good idea to arrive early to snag a good seat and maybe finish your pie before you learn what an omentum is.

What, When, Where

Madame Ovary. By Rosa Hesmondhalgh, directed by Charlotte Northeast. $21-$32. Through November 19, 2023, at Fergie’s Pub, 1214 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or


The second-floor performance space at Fergie’s is accessible only by stairs.

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