Clive and Robertson at Edinburgh Fringe, where the show received high praise. JOHANNES HJORTH

How do you react when your best friend is diagnosed with a brain tumour? It’s a position few of us can imagine finding ourselves in, let alone having to deal with. Yet in Britney, hitting Cambridge’s ADC fresh from the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, award-winning playwright Charly Clive and ex-Footlight Ellen Robertson show us how a rock solid friendship allowed them to turn a tumour into humour.

Charly and Ellen struck up a friendship midway through high school. Of their beginnings, Charly explains: “We knew and admired each other from afar for the first few years. (Ellen was near the cool group, which was very hard to penetrate if you weren’t in the form 8E – but not hard to penetrate if you were a year above at Abingdon Boys’ School). But in Year 9 we attended a playwriting workshop together and two weeks later I invited Ellen on my family holiday.” 

A number of years later the girls’ friendship faced a test, as Charly made a move across the pond. “Well, prior to my move to New York we had been travelling together on our gap year so we squeezed in a lot – we didn’t wee apart for four months,” says Charly. But the two continued to stay in touch: “Ellen was constantly leaving her essays till the night before they were due so it was quite easy to Skype even with the five-hour time difference. And, in the nearly five years I lived in New York, Ellen came to visit four times.”

“One of us was in need, so the other one was there with tea and jokes and episodes of MTV’s Catfish.”JOHANNES HJORTH

Distance was not the only challenge that this friendship was to face, however, and the real test revealed itself in the form of a tumour (later named Britney, since apparently “if Britney can get through 2007, you can get through anything”) found in Charly’s brain at the beginning of last year. 

After Charly made a return to the UK following the news, it was decided that Ellen would move in with the family. “It wasn’t really ever decided; thinking about it in hindsight, it was sort of just a knee-jerk reaction,” remembers Charly. “One of us was in need, so the other one was there with tea and jokes and episodes of MTV’s Catfish.”

“A play about brain tumour that's NOT hilariously funny?! You're mental.”

And so, during what must have undoubtedly been a turbulent and emotional time, these two young women chose to be decidedly British about the entire matter: they turned it into a joke. “We had been planning to do comedy together for years,” the girls explain, “and more and more we realised that a lot of the stuff we were laughing about was brain-tumour related. So it just seemed to make sense. We would make each other laugh while in waiting rooms, where we spent a lot of the beginning of last year, making up scenarios about MRIs, doing impressions of fast talking doctors and staging interventions for Ellen’s very real obsession with the free mochas from the waiting room coffee machine.” 

According to Ellen and Charly, there was never any doubt regarding the genre of the play: “Britney always had to be a comedy. No doubt. A play about brain tumour that’s NOT hilariously funny?! You’re mental.” Did they find writing the play difficult at times? “Yeah – loads. But mainly because our office was a Wetherspoons and we would get accidentally quite drunk and/or distracted with Youtube make up tutorials.”

“Loads of my fondest memories are of Cambridge, and I've had some OK times with Charly, so throwing them together feels like an exciting party where you've invited two groups of friends you know won't really get on.”

For ex-Footlight Ellen, bringing such a personal play back to Cambridge is something of a ‘homecoming’. “It feels nice, yeah,” she says. “Loads of my fondest memories are of Cambridge, and I’ve had some OK times with Charly, so throwing them together feels like an exciting party where you’ve invited two different groups of friends you know won’t really get on. My worry is she’ll get wasted afterwards and therefore bring shame to the ADC: the only building I have both made love in and made love to. But, to be honest, after the year we just had, I think we both just feel very lucky to be here.”

Clive and Robertson are performing in Britney on Weds 18th January, 11pm at the ADC