Working class women's fashion and fighting to be explored in Sheffield Festival of the Mind

Toby Peach was barely out of his teenage years when he made his deposit to a sperm bank. It was likely the only hope he would have to father any biological children in the future.

He hadn’t thought too much about that yet, but at least this gave him an option, a possibility should the desire arise. He was 19 when he was first diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system. Six months of treatment later and he got the news he’d been hoping for – he was in remission. But it was to be shortlived. For only a year later, the cancer returned.

As theatre maker Toby faced chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, he was told it was likely the treatment would leave him infertile. And so he found himself depositing sperm. "As I returned to good health, my hair grew back, I started to look physically ‘normal’ and my strength came back,” the now 33-year-old recalls. “What was more long term, and something we don’t really explore and understand as much beyond the cancer community, were the invisible impacts that affect people.

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"Things like thinking about your identity when you get cancer at a time when you’re exploring who you are as a human being…Also, learning to cope with understanding your mortality and the anxiety that comes from having regular scans and wondering if your cancer will come back and how you adjust to the ‘new normal’.”

Toby Peach is exploring fertility in a performance at the Festival of Mind. Photo: Brian Freidman/CancerConToby Peach is exploring fertility in a performance at the Festival of Mind. Photo: Brian Freidman/CancerCon
Toby Peach is exploring fertility in a performance at the Festival of Mind. Photo: Brian Freidman/CancerCon

“Going into cancer treatment is like being inside a hurricane,” he adds. “If you’re fortunate enough to be thrown out of the other side, you stumble around for years not really sure what way is forward and you’re trying to piece together things. There was a point, which I did find through the arts, at which I was able to stop and start to consider looking over my shoulder at the destruction that had happened and with that came looking at my fertility status.”

Toby has produced a number of pieces exploring narratives around cancer and five years ago, he began working on his latest, a piece exploring the story of a young man’s experience of infertility coupled with the life-or-death race of sperm. He’s due to perform it at Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind later this month – but its focus has shifted from Toby’s original plan, after a major twist in his story. Ten years after making his deposits, he was faced with a decision about what to do with them – and underwent a fertility test.

“As somebody who makes theatre, I thought this is interesting as a concept and I built the show around that idea,” he says. “Then I went to have my test - I was not infertile, I was fertile...How do you cope with grieving something and it then in a sense returning to your world?”

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Toby, who is based just south of London, had spent years looking for reasons why it was “quite good” to be infertile, a way, he says, to help him process what he thought was his reality. “A lot of that was tied to where we are in our world right now,” he explains. “We have a climate crisis and what would it be like to have a child born at this time? I wanted to explore that in the show as somebody who had lost their ability to have children and got it back - an act of wonder and not expected at all - even despite that, there’s questions.”

For the show, Fertile, Toby has partnered with Professor Allan Pacey, an expert in andrology at the University of Sheffield, who will hold a question and answer session after the performance, as well as with Sheffield-based creative agency Human.

His show, on September 21, is part of the 11-day Festival of the Mind, a programme of events in which Sheffield’s creative industries seek to bring to life University of Sheffield research that is helping to tackle some of the biggest issues in society. This year, events are based around the themes of celebration, exploration, innovation, regeneration and wellbeing, including shining a light on issues hidden from public discourse or seen as taboo.

Rachel Genn and Debbie Ballin are hoping to do just that with their gallery exploring working class women’s fashion – and fighting. Battledress is also complemented by a talk from Professor David Forrest of the School of English, exploring the relationship between dress, music and rebellion. The exhibition delves into themes such as how clothes can play a part in tensions between groups and the rituals of dressing up for nights out in 1980s Sheffield at clubs, fairgrounds and ice rinks.

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Debbie explains: “It’s people telling their stories in a really forthright and open way of the joy of finding great clothes, especially in charity shops or people making them for you, and of having a really special outfit that people would notice on a night out...You also have forthright stories about what would trigger fights, who was involved in them, where they would take place and why and the visceral physical thing of what it feels like for a girl to be in a fight and what it feels like afterwards.

“We want to open up a wider conversation really about women and fighting and what drives that. And also why there’s reluctance - the idea that it’s ok for men to talk about fighting and actually it’s not for women. People don’t like to think of women fighting and they aren’t comfortable with it. It pushes against the ideas of femininity and what women are supposed to be.”

The festival offers an opportunity for people to explore research taking place at the university, from the latest medical and scientific discoveries to big issues affecting day-to-day life. As Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of city and culture at the university, says: “Some of these projects are shining a light on important issues in society that would otherwise remain hidden from public discourse, others are tackling challenges we know but are yet to address.”

Festival of the Mind starts today and runs until September 25. Visit