A play about assisted suicide might seem a bit daunting, but for those who can see past their reservations about the subject matter, Chris Larner’s one-man show offers a courageous, moving and ultimately uplifting insight into this controversial subject.
In November 2010, actor and writer Larner accompanied his ex-wife, Allyson, and her sister, to the Swiss clinic Dignitas. Allyson had suffered from multiple sclerosis since her 30s, and had deteriorated to the extent that she felt her life was no longer tolerable, simply an exercise in pain and frustration. Larner here traces this journey right back to its origins – from when they met as young actors, to her first diagnosis when pregnant with their son, through her terrible decline right up unto her death.
What stops this tragic story from being one long wallow is that Larner (guided by the steady hand of award winning director Hannah Eidinow) is a talented and likeable storyteller blessed with an Alan Bennett-like ability to see the (often, admittedly, dark) humour in even the bleakest situations. With no prop on stage other than a wooden chair, he switches between roles, ably conjuring up Allyson, her family and her doctors in a way that keeps the show from ever being just one man telling you a terrible tale.
He is aided in this by the figure of Allyson herself. A no nonsense Yorkshirewoman who, when she became ill, gave up acting to become a drama teacher, she was clearly an inspiring woman, and her spirit and her passion come across. Wisely, Larner doesn’t canonise her, freely admitting that, after any length of time together, they were reminded why they divorced. While we see her humour, her indomitable spirit, her sheer will to live, we also see her reduced to a childlike terror by her illness, ground down by constant pain; Larner’s portrayal at times is so vivid you will want to look away.
The show manages to be admirably unflinching about the gruesome indignity of the minutiae of illness – the piss and the shit of it, the nappies and the enemas and the complete lack of privacy in a life turned over to carers and doctors – while avoiding being preachy about Allyson’s decision. He casts a gimlet eye over the process of assisted suicide, capturing the sterile mundaneness of the Swiss portacabin where their journey ends, puncturing the ridiculousness of the red tape that needs to be manoeuvred to arrive there. He is understandably frustrated about the damaging ambiguity of British law, but he also gives voice to his own ambivalence about the process, and makes it clear that their son was set against it, protesting right up until the final minutes that this is not a choice his mother should have made.
Running at just over 75 minutes, the production can be uncomfortable – you feel you are witnessing a grief that is still fresh. Larner’s affection for Allyson and his anger at her fate are palpable, and a final scene, played out to the song she wanted dedicated to her son, is almost unbearably moving.
But what makes this show so remarkable is its refusal to be cowed by death. Like its protagonists, it finds humour and kindness in the worst of circumstances – for a play about illness and suicide, it contains an awful lot of laughter, and if that laughter is tinged with dread, well isn’t the truest form of comedy a defence against despair? What shines out, in the end, is not hopelessness, but life, and love, and compassion, the ‘instinct for kindness’ that binds us all: no one could wish for a more fitting tribute.