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The Theatreguide.London Review

 Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Comedy Theatre   Winter-Spring 2005

Brian Clark's 1978 drama is a marvellous vehicle for a star, with several excellent supporting roles. It movingly and thought-provokingly raises issues that you are likely to debate long after leaving the theatre. And it is frequently very funny. So this long-overdue revival is very welcome, even if it is a bit less than perfect.

At the play's centre is an accident victim paralysed from the neck down, who argues forcefully for the right to die. The original production starred Tom Conti, who brought his unlimited charm to the role, but when it moved to Broadway, Clark rewrote it to make the character a woman, and Mary Tyler Moore played her with cold dignity.

Clark has done some minor rewriting for this revival, adding a few jokes along with references to Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve, but what we have is essentially the Broadway version, with American actress Kim Cattrall in the bed.

Cattrall, best known as the tallest and most promiscuous of the quartet in TV's Sex and the City, brings a new quality to the role that changes - and to my mind somewhat weakens - it but, taken on its own terms, still works.

Conti and Moore both played the role with a mix of fiery passion and cold reason, demanding that they not be deprived of the human right to control their own fate and creating a dramatic paradox in which you were convinced by the power of their argument at the same time you were so drawn to their obvious vitality that you wanted them to live.

Cattrall plays the woman far more soft and needy, with an emphasis on her unhappiness rather than her anger. She seems driven less by the demand to control her own destiny and retain her dignity than by a grieving for all she has lost, her sexual identity as a woman in particular.

So your dominant emotional response is likely to be pity, rather than respect. If you find yourself siding with her desire to die, it will be to relieve her pain rather than to respect her dignity; if you want her to live, it will be because she seems a nice person, not because of the force of her personality.

But, as I say, the play works on that level, and the roller coaster ride between black humour and tugs at the heartstrings can be a very satisfying theatrical experience.  Perhaps only those who remember one of the original performances will sense any loss, or get the feeling that, by giving up the intellectual argument somewhat, the play has become less dangerous, less threatening to your complacency.

None of this is meant to criticise Cattrall's performance, which is first-rate, given the interpretation she and director Peter Hall have chosen, and the production in general is the best work the very uneven Peter Hall has done for the commercial theatre in years.

There are strong supporting performances by Alexander Siddig as a sympathetic young doctor, Emma Lowndes as a trainee nurse too new on the job to know she shouldn't care for her patient, William Chubb and Ann Mitchell as the senior doctor and nurse whose professionalism has not destroyed their humanity, and Jotham Annan as the orderly who shows the patient the highest respect by not smothering her in pity. The only disappointment is the usually reliable Janet Suzman, giving a tentative and unfocussed performance as the judge who must decide what rights the patient has.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Whose Life Is It Anyway? - Comedy 2005