Freedom of choice is something democracies take for granted but when a person is in terminal pain, why are they not given the right to die? In 2010, Chris Larner accompanied his chronically ill ex-wife, actress Allyson Lee, to Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic and returned alone with an empty wheelchair.
An actor and playwright, Chris decided to explore the issue of assisted dying in An Instinct For Kindness, which won critical acclaim and a Fringe First Award at its Edinburgh debut last summer. The first UK tour of the play calls in a the Old Town Hall in Hemel Hempstead this month.
Chris has appeared in TV series such as The Bill and Byker Grove and in the 1990’s played Cling Film in London’s Burning. The Essex-born actor trained at RADA and began his career at the Theatre Centre in Islington in 1982, where he met Allyson.
The couple were married in 1983. Then during her pregnancy, Allyson was diagnosed with MS. Their son was born in 1985. The couple separated and were divorced in 1987, but stayed good friends. By restricting her diet, Allyson managed to keep the disease in check for 20 years.
“One of the things about MS is it’s a remarkably unpredictable disease,“ says Chris. “It comes in all shapes and sizes. There are as many variants as people who have it. After our son was born she did recover quite considerably and she went on to be an inspirational teacher for 12 years. That’s something I wanted to include in the play, that she was a very strong and motivated woman, who fought like hell and didn’t give up easily. What’s important for this story is that she decided when she’d had enough and that was when she could no longer enjoy living at all.“
Although Allyson was not alive by the time he came to write her story, Chris says they did discuss it.
“I joked about it with her very briefly. She said: ’That would be a laugh – Dignitas the musical’. Then I thought about it on the day she died and felt repulsed about the whole business. Yet, as anybody who has nursed or known someone living with a progressive illness is aware, the process of grief begins even before someone has died and the story was still burning a hole in my heart.“
Chris saw writing and performing the play as a way to celebrate Allyson’s life and spirit. His last words to her as she lay dying were: ’Don’t worry, Allyson, I remember you dancing’.
“When someone dies there’s great poignancy in remembering them in their happier days and that is redoubled with MS. It can be such a cruel disease because it strikes people who are full of beans.
“Allyson was constantly waking hoping against hope something would start working again. After an attack there was often a small improvement and she lived in hope she’d feel better. This was gruelling on the spirit. She was generous and positive even towards the end but she never wavered from her determination.
"She didn’t ask permission from me, God or the state. She was not afraid to voice an opinion and saw it as her right to die. She was absolutely determined that was right for her and got cross about people taking the moral high ground about how much pain people can put up with.“
In June 2011 the BBC2 screened a documentary Choosing To Die, presented by Terry Pratchett, which showed the assisted death of 71-year-old Peter Smedley, who was suffering from motor neurone disease.
“It’s an interesting statistic that of the 900 complaints the BBC received about the programme, 70 per cent arrived before it was screened,“ comments Chris. “The secrecy and silence is the enemy. We’re very good at it in this country but with an ageing demographic the problem is not going to go away. Neurological illnesses are on the increase and it has to be talked about even though it’s uncomfortable and distressing.
“What Allyson went through was unacceptable and the legislation that backs that up is cruel and outdated. There will be someone else going through all that secrecy and expense and on their behalf it’s quite nice to put this message out there somehow.“
An Instinct For Kindness is at The Old Town Hall, High Street, Hemel Hempstead on Friday, March 9 at 8pm.
Details: 01442 228091, www.oldtownhall.co.uk