There’s a bare stage, one man and a chair, and yet An Instinct for Kindness is the most engaging play I’ve seen in a while. Written and acted by Chris Larner, based on his own experiences, the narrative takes us on a journey from his meeting Alison, who he married, had a child with, divorced, remained friends with, and eventually assisted in suicide. With little to work with physically, the success of the play is a testament to Larner’s talent as writer and actor.
In theory, it sounds like it should make for depressing viewing. But, Larner is at no point self-pitying. This play is not necessarily about persuading people to think a certain way about assisted suicide, it’s about understanding someone’s story.
One of the key things about this play is that it’s not just from Larner’s point of view. He plays the different roles – his ex-wife, Alison; their son, George; Alison’s sister, Vivian; the Swiss doctors. Larner inhabits the characters so convincingly, that you forget this is just one man.
Surprisingly, we find ourselves laughing throughout a play about assisted suicide. He describes how Alison made the decision to go to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, but is quick to tell us ‘you can’t just turn up.’ His humourous approach makes the play all the more compelling.
Perhaps the best example of this combination of humour and tragedy, is when he, as Alison, tells us she had started a really good book, and now she’ll never finish it. As she prepares to take the medicine that will kill her, Chris offers to read her the last few pages. Before long, it becomes apparent that he is not reading the last pages of her book, but in fact the opening extract of another, placed at the end of the novel. The audience erupts with laughter, at the point where Alison is about to seal her fate – it’s a bizarre mix of emotions, but it works.
With assisted suicide being something of a taboo subject, Larner gives us the ins and outs of all the hoops they had to jump through – along with the fear that a lawyer or doctor could uncover their intentions. When the confirmation letter finally comes, he admits that, oddly, it felt like a triumph.
The play shifts around in time, and Larner moves around the stage to signal different settings, and different characters – this keeps the pace. At one point Larner questions whether we have a right to decide when we die, but it is never preachy. Alison, who suffered from multiple-sclerosis, told him: ‘I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to live like this.’
Though the play is humourous, it’s not without sadness. Someone behind me was sobbing with about ten minutes to go. I kept it together until the last minute, when Larner took his bow, and gestured to the empty chair – a simple, yet effective way to end a powerful play.
An Instinct For Kindness ran until Sunday 24 March at:
Image by Geraint Lewis