Theatre review: An Instinct for Kindness at Trafalgar Studios

16:48 14 April 2012

An Instinct For Kindness. Written and performed by Chris Larner, directed by Hannah Eidinow. Picture by Geraint Lewis

An Instinct For Kindness. Written and performed by Chris Larner, directed by Hannah Eidinow. Picture by Geraint Lewis 07831413452

Stirring one-man play sees Chris Larner tell the tragic story of his ex-wife’s assisted suicide

» Two years ago, Chris Larner took his ex-wife Allyson, in chronic pain with multiple sclerosis, to Dignitas in Switzerland to help her die.

The idea to turn his story into a play first came to him on the day that Allyson swallowed the bitter and lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, but he was “immediately repulsed with myself for thinking such a thing”.

Later he revisited the idea, finding some catharsis in playing out her last years, months and, in great detail, her last day on this planet in front of an audience. And after a sell-out run in Edinburgh last year, Larner has brought his one-man play to the appropriately intimate setting of Studio 2 at The Trafalgar Studios.

The instinct for kindness to which the title refers is expressed in a small moment between Larner and the chambermaid who is present in the background at much of Allyson and Larner’s stay in Switzerland.

“Is better for you now. I think so,” she says to Larner. But it’s Larner’s instinct for kindness which is very apparent in this story – having split from his wife after having a son, he affectionately cites Allyson’s compulsive cleanliness as the main reason for their divorce. But staying firm friends, Larner remained very much in Allyson’s life while the MS took hold and ultimately rendered her physically helpless and in constant pain.

The play focuses very much on the story and not on his reflections of it. Larner’s talent for dramatic structure is clear, as he plays with chronology and pace so that the 75 minutes of him talking directly to us remains engaging throughout.

In painstaking but fascinating detail, Larner describes the process of Dignitas from its expensive membership to the near impossible task of finding a notary who is willing to be complicit in what is an illegal act in the UK (assisting suicide) to what actually happens in the eerie portacabins in Switzerland.

In the absence of any deep emotive reflection from Larner you find yourself turning inwards – “How would I feel? What would I do?” – and, needless to say, it’s a heavy but incredibly powerful experience.

* An Instinct for Kindness is at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, SW1, until April 28.

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