An Instinct for Kindness is the story of a death, the death of the ex-wife of the writer/performer Chris Larsen. 17 months ago, he and her sister took Allyson, only just 60, to Switzerland and were present when she took the fatal dose. But it is so much more than those stark words relate.
It is 75 minutes about a life lived to the full, from when Chris and Allyson met and fell in love, through the heart-rending hideous diagnosis of MS when a few months pregnant with their son George, through the utterly fierce-willed retention of strength for a number of years, till the deterioration became too much, through to her death.
It is not a gloomy story – it is told with humour and lightness – “we divorced, but remained friends; when we met, we knew why we fell in love; but after two days in each other’s company, we knew why we divorced!” And when Allison had a fall, resulting in a two months stay in hospital, Chris tells us “ the fight went out of her, after two months with the bullying by the nurses, the indifference of the doctors who treated her as a nuisance – she probably was!”
We all know the end of the story, but we keep faith with Chris - and Allyson - as the story unfolds through the 30 year relationship, until the final few years when the effects of the degenerative disease became more debilitating and painful. Those chilling words “I’ve had enough” say it all. The long-drawn out and nearly-frustrated preparations to go to Switzerland are telling; Chris does not rant, he merely notes them. Who blabbed, and almost scuppered their efforts? One of the carers; why? Well perhaps she was afraid of her job? “No, it’s because she’s a Catholic, well as good as, her boyfriend is an adult convert – they’re the worst.” Intense and dramatic, Chris reflects all the roles, in conversation usually with himself or Allyson, the carers visiting, the indefatigable Swiss who have to play it by the book, and repeat the instructions to keep it legal, the notaries who ask the wrong questions (you have to have a notary providing an “affidavit of domicile”. Gas bills, council tax bills – no those aren’t enough for the orderly legalistic Swiss). And of course, we all know that it is illegal to procure the suicide of another.
Allyson’s final night is ruined by the regular ghastly gut problem she endures, and there is a straightforward, tender, unsentimental, graphic telling of the administration by her sister of an enema, and the agony she goes through as it works.
Chris also has a final night of deep questioning of this action he is facilitating. “I’m a Nazi, I can’t go through with it, even if there is no God, this is sacred”. But Allyson is determined. She says – in the clinic – “I don’t want to die; but I don’t want to live”.
There were moments when I and I’m sure many members of the audience had tears running down our cheeks – but the play was not heavy, and was full of laughter, too. "If I ever meet my Maker, I’ll have words with him", says Allyson, when they’re discussing whether there is a God. And the tiny seeming everyday details, give a lightness to the whole piece, belying the deep kernel of grief running through it. It is never sentimental or self-indulgent, it is not an overtly political message, no agit-prop piece. But boy, it’s a powerful exposition of a discussion that needs to be had, for the good of all of us.
An Instinct for Kindness is at the Trafalgar Studios in London till the end of the week, then on tour around the country until the end of June.