Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Comedy Theatre

Playing against type, Cattrall refuses to take it lying down
Click to follow

Peter Hall seems to be making a habit of immobilising popular television actresses on the West End stage.

Peter Hall seems to be making a habit of immobilising popular television actresses on the West End stage.

A year ago or so, he had Felicity Kendal buried up to her neck in earth in his version of Beckett's Happy Days . Now he has the Sex And The City star Kim Cattrall paralysed from the neck down in a hospital bed in Brian Clark's updated version of his 1970 hit play Whose Life Is It Anyway .

If Samantha, Cattrall's television character was compulsively prepared (in one sense) to take it lying down, that's precisely what (in the other sense) her character Clare in the stage drama will not do. Reduced to being a talking head after a road accident and left with a drastically diminished quality of life, this former sculptor battles with the medical powers-that-be for the right to die.

Tom Conti starred in the original version, which was adapted for Mary Tyler-Moore on Broadway. It has now been further re-written to take account of: medical advances (the eventual possibility of regeneration through stem-cells is far too long a shot for Claire); legal precedents (the contrasting verdicts in the case of Miss B and Diane Pretty are invoked); and improvements in technology (voice-operated computer art would feel, to her, like mocking her tactile talents). Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking are mentioned and while Claire "respects their choices'' she wants to be allowed the dignity of making her own.

Cattrall gives a very attractive and moving, if slightly too emphatic, performance. She eloquently expresses, through just her face and voice, all of Clare's moods - the barbed button-brightness; the sarcastic stand-up (or propped-up) funny-girl routines which radiate the continuing sharpness that puts the character in a Catch-22 position (if you are clever and sane enough to mount a strong case for suicide, it shows you ought not to die); and the desperation of thwarted yearning, especially the humiliation of arousing kindly pity where once she would have aroused sexual desire.

The play's heart is in the right place. The climactic hearing - to decide if Claire is rationally depressed and so fit to decide her own fate - is convened by the ruse of taking out a habeas corpus writ against the hospital (a recourse not open these days to the detainees in Belmarsh). Janet Suzman's brave and authoritative judge presides wisely. You feel that to doom a paralysed person to existence against his or her will would be to play God with suicidal suffering more harshly than, well, God does.

But Hall's production does contain some dreadfully over-insistent performances. And it can't disguise the fact that there's not enough texture or variation of atmosphere in this relentlessly talkative, admirably humane, and artistically not very distinguished drama.