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12 February 2012

portrait photo of chris larner sitting thoughtfully in a chair against a black background

Photo of Chris Larner

An Instinct for Kindness is written and performed by Chris Larner, directed by Hannah Eidenow, and produced by James Seabright. Nervously and with some trepidation, Deborah Caulfield went to see the play at Swindon Arts Centre on Thursday 9th February.

Critically acclaimed at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, An Instinct for Kindness is a one-man play, performed by the author, about the agony of self-determined death and the particular kind of grief that follows.

It is indeed a harrowing story that, according to the reviews is impossible to see it without feeling deeply moved. Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian: ‘… half the audience is in pieces long before the end.’

On a dark and empty stage, barefoot in shirtsleeves, Chris Larner and a chair enact the whole story. Between them they play all the parts, including: Chris and Allyson, old friends and ex husband and wife; George, their son; Vivienne, Allyson’s sister; the empathetic Swiss chambermaid; the Dignitas doctors.

The opening scene introduces us to Allyson. She is shouting and panicking as she struggles, with her walking frame, to sit down. We get the picture: Multiple Sclerosis is horrible.

A fall in the bath is followed by a spell in a rehab ward which, Chris recounts, steals her spirit  and replaces it with fear. On her 60th birthday Allyson, now using a wheelchair full time, declares there is nothing to celebrate.

This is a story of unbearable pain and wanting out. It is less about the suffering in death, more about the intolerability of life. Allyson says, ‘I don’t want to die; I just don’t want to live. Like this.’

Chris agrees to help. George is completely against it and says so again and again. But Allyson knows her (perfectly sound) mind and she will have her way, as always. In life as in life. Adult onset disability changes the body, it doesn’t change the person.

Applying to Dignitas, Chris tells us, is a complicated process. The paperwork is mountainous and the cost is considerable, prohibitive for many one imagines.

The legal hurdles, too, are not insignificant. In the UK suicide is not against the law. However, despite attempts at legalisation, and thanks to Care not Killing's campaign, it is still a crime to assist in someone else’s suicide.

Everything has to be kept secret, lest the police turn up. This is far from easy in a household where care workers come and go all the time, letting themselves in with their own keys.

When someone blabs, Social Services call Allyson. Their concern for her mental health receives a clear rebuff: ‘I am not depressed. I do not need counselling. I want to die!’

Curiously, there is no ramp up to the front door of Dignitas.

End of story.

An Instinct For Kindness tours until 25 March 2012. For more information and dates please go to

An Instinct for Kindness tells of a man coming to terms with helping a loved one to end her own life. Along the way he glimpses kindness in others, seeing this as glimmers of hope.

My fear is that this play provides propaganda for those campaigning to legalise assisted suicide.

I feel strongly that assisted suicide should not be decriminalised. I would go further and call for the law to be properly enforced, where currently it is not.

In my view, legalisation is a big and brutal hammer with which to crack a tiny little nut. This tiny nut is the minority of disabled or ill people who persuade someone else to kill them, perhaps on the basis that there can be no greater expression of love or, arguably, invoking their instinct for cruelty.

I’ll be honest; I am not a neutral observer in these matters.

My father had MS and died age 42. Including three ex-partners, almost all of my past and present friends and acquaintances are disabled people.

I am addicted to disability.

In sixty years as a disabled person, twenty years working in and around disabled people’s organisations, I have never met or known of any disabled person who said they wanted to die.

People have asked me for advice and help in obtaining many things, including access to information, housing, transport, education; employment, volunteering opportunities, personal assistance, and health services.

I have been asked for support to get pregnant and give birth. I have assisted disabled people to do many things, including: self advocate and self organise; exercise their political rights and citizenship responsibilities; get divorced; quit a job.

A man in Cardiff asked me to fundraise for an operation on his groin. When I said this was not the organisation’s role, he asked ‘Well what the bloody hell are you there for?’ Good question.

Very few disabled people that I am aware of are totally happy about their situation. Many are scared shitless about the rolling back of hard-won rights around independent living, choice and control. Some have taken their own lives.

No one has ever asked me to help them kill themselves. If they did, I’d say no. It’s not what I do.

Sadly, it is the case that, in the community to which I belong, depression and mental distress are commonly experienced as a consequence of the suffering inflicted upon them.

Must I repeat? It is not our impairments, or medical conditions, that make us miserable, but the segregation, isolation, exclusion, neglect and abuse to which we are subjected.

So I know all about suffering. Yet I firmly and unshakably believe that death should not be promoted as a solution to life’s problems. For me it is quite simple: Death is what happens when our life is over. Until then the law should proactively support our desire and our right to live. If it doesn’t, we’re all at risk.

The Good Funeral Guide (independent, not-for-profit consumer advice and advocacy service, here to help you arrange the funeral you want) carries a clip of the play, with self-deliverance as a keyword.


Colin Hambrook [ED]

27 February 2012

I'll soon be publishing a piece on Assisted Suicide: The Musical - a production to be co-written by Liz Carr and Sophie Partridge. This show will counter the bias. Watch this space!

Deborah Caulfield

25 February 2012

Thanks, Katherine and everyone for your feedback.

I confess I missed the Arts Council funding aspect to this, which just adds to my discomfort.

Notwithstanding the hurdles, which I know are considerable, we do need to be writing our side of the story and getting it out there.

I'd like to propose a working/writing group, but perhaps there already is one?

Katherine Araniello

25 February 2012

Excellent review – We are already censored in what we see – so it is naive to beleive that we are not. Art funding applications are bureaucratic and laborious and one needs to be prepared to compromise when going through the process, I know this from direct experience with art funding applications.

On the subject of this review, yet again a pro assisted suicide piece has received funding and there is nothing to counterbalance the general concensus which supports assisted suicide.

Jo Verrent

25 February 2012

Interesting review covering interesting piece. Disagree with Fiona though. I would hate to see ACE only funding pieces which certain groups found acceptable. I think art is there to challenge and provoke - as this piece has done. Its made people think, got people talking, debating. I don't want to live in a world which is censored and where someone else decides what I should and shouldn't see - even if some of that work might upset me or go against my personal beliefs.

fiona branson

25 February 2012 arts council funding is made available, in these deep dark times, to argue the case for, and therefore effectively promote, dignitas, which is as far as i can see a commercial enterprise that kills people. perhaps to balance this out somewhat, the arts council might like to properly fund a few more productions employing disabled actors on equity contracts promoting positive images of working disabled people.

Deborah Caulfield

24 February 2012

A play of this nature is bound to raise issues; I'd be concerned if it didn't.

Also, as Rich's comment demonstrates, difficult and/or troubling memories are likely to be triggered. Who knows what might come up.

Assisted suicide seems to be an issue on which it is as painful to be undecided as it is to be vehemently against, or reluctantly in favour. Whichever way, it hurts. That's the thing about death.

I am not ambivalent about assisted suicide, which is perhaps why I was keen to see the play.

The review was not an easy piece to write. I almost fudged it. (Eh, Ed?)

So perhaps one shouldn't be too surprised that other reviewers have tended to fudge the central questions, nor judge them too harshly for this. I would however wonder if they were doing their jobs properly.

As for my review finding a wider outlet/audience, I'm still learning my craft, so not (yet) ready to do battle with the mainstream media.

Perhaps, if at all, we need to address this in the context and under the heading of Look What They're Not Saying. The trouble is, I think we know what they're thinking.

Anne Teahan

22 February 2012

You've written such a strong review. I haven't seen the show, but I flicked through lots of the other reviews on the links. Yours appears to be the only review that is critical or questioning - I think it's such a difficult, painful subject that nobody else is asking questions.

I hope that your review might be published in a mainstream space as well as on DAO - especially the postscript which is so powerful and clear.

Otherwise, it seems that there's only one point of view being generally aired, and it is quickly becoming received wisdom. And I do think that is very dangerous.

Is there any chance of extending the spread of the review?

richard downes

14 February 2012

a friend once phoned me to tell me he had taken an overdose and that he wanted me to go sit with him to make sure that he was ok whilst he died. I agreed to do this but cannot remember how i felt until i got there. When i got there i decided he wasn't going to die and when he woke up i gave him such a bollocking saying if you have to do this again don't invite me and do it clean, where no one has to suffer finding you. A few weeks later he did as he wanted to. And i respect the choice he made. I now have a photo of him lying in the chapel of rest. I was going to use it to put up posters saying community care isn't working. That's how long ago it was. The thing is my friend had to live with intolerable memories of abuse and he was in circles where that abuse would re-perpetuate itself over and over again. The mental health services that he was linked into didn't seem to give a shit even though they knew well about his deterioration and intention. All they knew was to tell him to take pills even though his best times where when he had access to talking therapies. the whole story made me wonder who you can trust with this stuff.

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