Comedy Theatre, London
Whose Life Is It Anyway? rides the wave of the peculiar enthusiasm for the ‘right to die’. This used to be considered a rather eccentric and marginal cause for want of a better word – but a right? Claire fights to reassert control over her life, but to what end other than just that – the end? Kim Cattrall, of Sex and the City fame, plays Claire Harrison, a woman who, as the play opens, has spent the past few months hospitalised following a road accident that has severed her spinal cord.
One might accuse the production of cashing in on the box office appeal of its star, had the (male) critics not drooled over her evident ability to act ‘from the neck up’ and still exude sex appeal. There has been a mixed response to the play despite its winning the Society of West End Theatres’ Best Play Award when it was first performed in 1978. But Cattrall’s West End debut has wowed them nonetheless, with a performance that finds her ‘flat on her back’ once again. You get the idea.
But Michael Billington, writing in the Guardian, has described the play as loaded. She has ‘all the best lines’ he complains. But, along with Peter Heppel of The Stage, he likes the anti-patriarchal element. (After its initial run with Tom Conti, the play reopened on Broadway in 1979 with a female lead.) The fact that this heightens her perceived vulnerability is all to the good, the critics seem to concur, as she is seen to battle against the very male world of medicine.
She uses her womanly ways to flirt with the orderly (‘nice ass’) and the junior doctor (‘do you like my breasts?), and seduces the critics and the audience too. But, in the end, for all the witty asides and wicked humour, the writer, Brian Clark, doesn’t begin to make a convincing case for her wish to end her own life. As this is a topical production, he name-checks the usual suspects, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Reeve and Diane Pretty, and in so doing portrays Claire, like Pretty, as anti-heroine. She doesn’t yearn for the return of sensation or champion stem cell research as Reeve did, or hope to seek solace in the world of the mind like Hawking. Perhaps she can be forgiven for that. But instead she is tormented by the cutting short of her sensual self. That is what she mourns.
The other characters are little more than cardboard cut outs of tired clichés and caricatures made to elevate her victim-status – the patronising social worker, kindly yet buttoned-up matron, and the ‘doctor knows best’ Dr Emerson. William Chubb plays the consultant who holds to the unfashionable view that it his job to keep people alive. His junior, played by Alexander Siddiq, is patient’s advocate with a bedside-manner to match. Ann Mitchell as Sister Anderson is the kind of figure the ultra-modern NHS is welcoming back to put that pesky MRSA bug back in its place. Indeed, it is striking that not only the issue of euthanasia but also the rise of the ‘expert-patient’ make this play perhaps more resonant today than when it was first performed.
And yet I can’t help wondering why, for all its timeliness and the plaudits that Cattrall has rightly received, nobody has raised an eyebrow – with the exception of Billington – about its underlying message. It should go without saying that this is not life-affirming stuff. Even if art needn’t aspire to such a worthy cause, surely we expect each other to be made of tougher stuff, and should be interrogating the assumptions of those who claim to campaign on our behalf? The fact that this play hasn’t caused offence should be a worry for anybody who takes what, for once, deserves to be called a ‘life and death’ issue seriously. Why aren’t paraplegics jamming the switchboards or battering down the doors of the Comedy Theatre? It’s not such a silly question, you know.