Writer: Chris Larner
Director: Hannah Eidinow
Reviewer: Georgina Newman
Actor and playwright Chris Larner is reliving the day of his good friend and former wife’s suicide on a nightly basis. Theatre is a vehicle for transportation, and he takes us back in time to that day in November 2010 when Larner, his former wife Allyson, who for decades had to suffer the pain, incapacitation, and indignity of multiple sclerosis, and her sister Vivienne, travelled to Dignitas, the now infamous Swiss organisation that provides the means for assisted suicide.
A recurring polemic, which is still high up in current affairs, still resonant in the House of Lords, and still – as Larner asserts – one big legal contradiction. The legalisation of suicide in the UK in 1961 hasn’t altered the fact that it’s still illegal to aid and abet the suicide of another. This is an important story to tell. It stands alone as something emotionally real and relevant against all the back and forth moralising. And even though this takes an emotional standpoint, Larner doesn’t wallow in sentiment. His story is structured, matter-of-fact, mechanical. It’s about the business of dying, not the sentimentality of it. This makes the reality of his experience all the more jarring.
The script twists and turns, moving backwards and forwards in time, brutally candid, always surprising. This is a winning piece of direction from Hannah Eidinow. One minute Larner’s narrating his story with almost hyperactive delivery, still grieving, still stunned, pacing purposefully about the stage, barefooted, with a whole range of tangled and intense looks, the next he’s locked in conversation with Allyson, sitting on the only prop in the space, then suddenly he is her, reeling in an imaginary wheelchair, contorted in agony, asking for the end.
A destination for departure turns into a bit of a holiday: spotless Swiss landscapes, smiles, fine wines, and trips down memory lane between Allyson and her otherwise estranged sister, as funeral requests come in the form of final demands: “I don’t want any stiff upper lip. I want weeping. I want wailing. I want people to be incon-frickin-solable.”
Larner’s pragmatic approach makes this all the more poignant. Allyson’s main concern for her only child with Larner, George, who has remained at home, and who keeps calling to try and change her mind, is set against her reckoning that it’s probably no longer necessary to floss, and the irritating state of having to leave a novel unfinished.
From the chocolate administered to mask the bitter taste of Allyson’s final drink, to the drowning, guilt-ridden aftermath, to the sign of solidarity made by the hotel chambermaid, there is the presumption that writing and performing a show of this nature only serves to lengthen the grieving process. But then it probably never ends. This is a relevant, must-see piece of theatre, not least because it is controversial, educational, and brilliantly performed, but also because it captures the experience of a dilemma that’s often argued over by people who know nothing of the experience themselves.