Here in the UK, there’s considerable discussion about the ‘nanny state’ – the extent to which the Government should interfere in the life of the citizen. Smacking children, banning smoking in public places, and the right of the individual to decide the manner and timing of their demise, are all hotly-debated items on the current political agenda. And almost every day brings new issues to the law courts to determine the rights and responsibilities of parents, spouses, doctors or patients in harrowing and complex ‘life and death’ cases.
It’s not surprising then that Brian Clark’s play ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway?’ has been revived - it’s subject-matter being as relevant today as it was when it won the Society of West End Theatre’s best play award back in 1978.
The storyline is deceptively simple. Intelligent and vivacious sculptor, Claire Harrison, is recovering in hospital after a serious road accident has left her paralysed from the neck down. As the play opens, she has realised that the quality of life she can expect in the future will be so poor, that she wishes to die. This decision leads to immediate conflict between Claire and her consulting physician, who sees his duty as preserving life, not terminating it. In the end, Claire has to resort to legal sanction in order to get what she wants.
‘Whose life is it anyway?’ was first cast with a male (Tom Conti) in the role. When Conti left the production during its Broadway run, the lead was changed to a female one with Mary Tyler Moore in the role. Both Conti and Mary Tyler Moore won awards for their performances, but it does seem to work better with a female lead, perhaps because it strengthens the conflict between the vulnerable principal character and the male-dominated medical team.
Better known for her role as Samantha Jones in ‘Sex And The City’ on TV (where she also spent a considerable amount of time in a horizontal position), Kim Cattrall makes her British theatre debut as Claire Harrison. It’s an extremely demanding role because her movements are so severely restricted. However, Cattrall convincingly amalgamates the comedic aspects of the role with the desperation and isolation of her situation. And she’s well supported by an able cast who have the challenging and delicate task of defining medical and legal professionalism without appearing totally inhuman. Ann Mitchell proves an authoritarian ward sister with a caring heart, and William Chubb strikes just the right tone as the paternalistic consultant.
My only quibble with the playing lies with Jotham Annan’s performance as John (the ward orderly). Although he provided some necessary humorous relief, his actions were overstated – a case, I think, where a little less could have been more. However, he does introduce an extremely important dimension to the play when he raises the morality of the considerable resources spent on medical care in the west, compared with the paltry amount available to the developing world. It shows the kind of depth this play contains.
Lucy Hall’s set design - using walkways on different levels and curtain tracks to segment the stage - cleverly suggests a busy modern hospital without littering it with the clutter of medical paraphernalia, enabling the audience to focus on the central character for much of the action, whilst fading her into the background when required.
Live theatre is certainly the best vehicle for serious issues of this kind. The intimacy and proximity of the cast challenges and provokes the audience in a way TV or film would struggle to do. However, I’m not as certain as Sir Peter Hall (director) that this play can be categorised so neatly as comedy because there’s much in the play which is tragic, but the comedy is certainly required to make the piece work, which it most certainly does.
‘Whose Life Is It Anyway?’ is thought provoking and unsettling on many different levels, but is definitely worth braving the Winter cold to see, and to argue about afterwards.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STRANDARD says, "Her [Kim Cattrall] emotive and vocal powers ultimately prove strong enough to give Brian Clarke's feeble tragi-comedy about euthanasia the kiss of theatrical life." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Although Cattrall gives a tremendous performance, I feel the piece itself is much less open-minded than Clark and his director, Peter Hall, claim." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Peter Hall's production is efficient rather than inspired....Nevertheless the luminous glow of Cattrall's beautiful, poignant performance will linger long in the memory." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Gripping."