Chris Larner’s affecting one-man An Instinct for Kindness opens with a heart-rending insight into the excruciating pain his ex-wife endured as an MS sufferer, and culminates in her death at Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic.
As a lone spotlight illuminates - figuratively as well as literally - the brutal difficulty presented by the act of sitting down, the audience enters a world of intense pain, sleeplessness, incontinence and isolation, and glimpses the desperate realities of life with chronic illness.
Part testimony and part eulogy, Larner’s monument to the person he loved is shot through with an anger that seeks to deny the moral and ethical judgment cast by those who would contest the agency and entitlement of his former partner to end her life.
As a playwright and actor, the treatment of his subject is unsentimental - a necessary quality in this context, where sentimentality can be devastating to those it touches. Much of its impact comes from those moments of universal human experience we share, but which remain often unspoken and rarely perceived by those outside our immediate circle; the felt familiarity of Allyson’s Yorkshire humour and the ease in laughing along with her is suddenly and devastatingly undercut by her extreme distress at her agonisingly painful double incontinence, rendering her housebound and depressed.
Facilitated by the play’s non-linear structure, such insights are central to a work that aims to remind its audience of the manner in which the privacy of our personal lives becomes inextricably public and political when policy determines the rights to personhood.
Larner’s undertaking is remarkable, accomplished and brave, but occasionally the viewer is left questioning whether this is autobiographical theatre, or theatrical autobiography. At times, the rendering of his own character segues into an off-handedness that appears almost ad-libbed for comic effect, such as in the moment he describes reading to Allyson “in my best RADA voice”, and suspends the flow of the play.
However, this is an inevitable difficulty of writing such a personal piece, and for the most part he succeeds in delivering well-crafted theatre.
Overall, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking and moving production. Larner received a well-deserved standing ovation on press night, and will undoubtedly be seeing many more in the weeks to come.