When Brian Clark’s drama first appeared on the London stage in 1978, Tom Conti took the role of the quadriplegic sculptor arguing eloquently for the right to end his life. Richard Dreyfuss did the honours in John Badham’s forgettable film version, and on its transfer to Broadway the play, now rewritten for a female lead, starred Mary Tyler Moore. In Peter Hall’s new production this part now falls to Kim Cattrall, latterly of Sex and the City, who, after a shaky start, proves to be more than up to the challenge.
Paralysed from the neck down after a car accident, Claire Harrison is trapped, both by a body she no longer has any control over and a system that ignores her pleas to be allowed to die. Initially a little shrill and forced, Cattrall’s performance soon warms up. Marooned centre stage in a hospital bed, her hair lank, a light trained on her face, she flirts and jokes, winks and wisecracks, and remains completely determined that she does not want to continue living if there is no possibility for recovery. The way she plays it, Claire’s loud, forthright attitude feels like an attempt to compensate for what she has lost, there’s an occasional desperation in her smile. When she asks the attractive young doctor, played by Alexander Siddig, what he thinks of her breasts there’s a sudden echo of Samantha that only heightens the poignancy of the moment.
Her insistence that she be allowed to die leads her consultant to start questioning her mental health and so Claire is forced to draft in her solicitor (This Life’s Milly, Amita Dhiri) and take matters to court. These legal proceedings take up much of the second act with the judge finally arriving in Claire’s hospital room to settle the case.
Though there is no doubt that, in its time, this was a brave and controversial production, public opinion and theatrical trends have both moved on in the intervening years. The inserted references to Christopher Reeve and stem cell research only highlight how dated the rest of the play is, and it can’t quite disguise its television drama roots. The action is populated with NHS stereotypes: the formidable matron, the arrogant consultant and the cocky orderly – these are not characters that have any real place in a 21st century drama. Also, on numerous occasions people pause to comment on what a witty, intelligent and articulate woman Claire Harrison is, as if that somehow wasn’t already clear.
Clark maintains that this is a comedy and there are many blackly funny moments which Cattrall, whose humour and self awareness always kept Samantha on the right side of caricature throughout Sex and the City’s six year run, handles very well. Peter Hall directs with customary skill, and Alexander Siddig and Ann Mitchell, as the aforementioned matron, do their best with rather thin characters, giving tender, intelligent performances. If the play struggles somewhat it’s because Clark’s writing has too many moments that don’t sit well with modern audiences.
Alejandro Amenbar’s recent film The Sea Inside may have been similarly themed, but where the quadriplegic protagonist in that film has lived with his condition for many years, Claire has only recently been injured and her one brush with counselling comes in the shape of another stereotype, the simpering hospital therapist. It’s also stretching plausibility that her partner, family and friends would all leave her to cope alone, no matter how eloquently she argued her wishes.
Ultimately, though Clark’s drama may not be as affecting as it was in the past, it still provides plenty of fuel for a lively post-play debate and the presence of Kim Cattrall ensures that it is an always entertaining and occasionally moving experience.