Slow Death: A Once Fresh and Daring Play Is Killed off in a Plodding Revival
Portillo, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Comedy Theatre, London SW1
It must be 27 years ago that I saw Tom Conti in the role of the patient with a severed spinal cord who asserts his right to choose to die. The play Whose Life Is It Anyway? and Conti's performance have lived in my mind ever since. I looked forward to seeing the revival with the Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall as the paralysed advocate of choice, renamed Claire Harrison. Like visiting a friend I had not seen for years, I was wholly unprepared for the ravages that time had inflicted on Brian Clark's text. Where once the dialogue had rattled along, it now seems to plod. Material that was once fresh and daring now strikes me as musty and trite.
The play has reached a venerable age. Originally a TV play, it was born on Granada Television in 1972 (when Ted Heath was prime minister, if any readers remember him). Theatre in the 21st century moves at a different pace. Playwrights no longer treat theatregoers as quite so dumb. In the intervening years, the issue addressed in the play has become familiar. Stephen Hawking has produced masterpieces of thought, despite having lost the use of his body. Christopher Reeve fought to recover movement after his spinal injury and campaigned to raise money for research. Diane Pretty went to court to claim her right to die. Reginald Crew travelled to Switzerland where he was allowed to end his life. Parliament is legislating on living wills (which would allow people to make their wishes clear before their accident or illness). When the judge in the play says, "This is a most unusual case", it makes no sense. Nowadays, such cases are rarely out of the news.
In plucking this dusty play from the shelf, the director, Peter Hall, could have presented it without modification as a 1970s classic. In fact, Clark's play has been doctored. References to the modern world hang from it untidily like Post-it notes. Thus NHS consultants moan about bureaucracy and accountants. But the make-over is superficial. Some unreformed lines sound as patronising as a Pathe newsreel: "I never met anyone quite like Claire Harrison. She's so bright."
The play is filled with stereotypes. The giggly trainee nurse (played by Emma Lowndes) made me feel uncomfortable, and I am no feminist. The gangly, oversexed, joke-cracking black orderly (Jotham Annan), who has a sit-down whenever he can and gets caught by the sister, is a caricature bordering on the offensive. It only gets worse when Claire elevates him to a sort of hero because he alone does not feel guilt about her condition. …