An Instinct for Kindness, Trafalgar Studios, London

The title of Chris Larner’s one-man play refers to a sympathetic gesture from a hotel chambermaid. The show, written and performed by Larner (best known as an actor), tells the true story of how he accompanied his ex-wife Allyson to her death at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland in 2010.

Larner recounts how the chambermaid arrived as he and Allyson’s sister were standing, numb, in their hotel bedroom, surrounded by Allyson’s now-redundant wheelchair, medicine and clothes. Seeing them and understanding what had happened, she pressed her hands to her heart in sympathy – a simple act that moved them deeply. Recalled here, it is perhaps the most touching moment in a play that is frequently very moving. But that idea of an “instinct for kindness” also clearly hovers behind the whole evening as Larner opens up the thorny issue of assisted suicide.

Larner’s account is peppered with flashbacks to the couple’s earlier life: their meeting, as two actors, in bad digs; their marriage; the birth of “a miraculous wriggling aubergine called George”; Allyson’s fight to regain mobility once she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; the gradual, then sudden decline over 25 years, until she is bed-bound, doubly incontinent and on a cocktail of drugs. Though divorced, the two remain on good terms, and so, when Allyson makes the decision to end her life, she asks Larner to accompany her.

Throughout, Larner weaves his own experience with the voice of Allyson, so that we have a vivid impression of this bright, funny, determined and “ridiculously tidy” woman. To the end, her sense of humour remains intact: “If I meet my maker, I’m having words. I want my money back: faulty workmanship.”

It’s a postcard from the edge and, as Larner recounts, frankly and unsentimentally, the details of the trip to Switzerland, most of the audience seem to be holding their breath. If Larner is unsparing in the physical detail, he also shares the unexpected moments of happiness and even comedy. But the piece is also charged by his anger at the English law, which leaves Allyson struggling in fear and secrecy to get together the necessary documentation.

It’s clear that he supports her decision, but he doesn’t flinch either from the hard questions. At one point he goes through a crisis of doubt and also includes the painful reaction of their son, who begs her to stop at the last moment. Delivered by Larner with candour, passion and warmth, this is a moving piece of theatre about a serious and pressing issue.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.