Liz Carr, actor and prominent disability rights activist (D-list celebrity, in her own words), brought the enormous and tangled issue of euthanasia to the stage in Assisted Suicide: The Musical at the Southbank’s Unlimited Festival in 2016. For one night, it returned to The Royal Festival Hall to bring its smart mix of personal insight, comedy and politics to a packed-out audience. It is a rich script with some solid musical numbers in it. The use of the musical genre was a sarcastic nod to the media’s tendency to ‘make a song and dance out of the issue’. The script is rich with understanding of an issue that many feel under-informed about, very likely due to the densely legalistic discussion it usually incurs. Following on from public debates and her own radio documentary, Carr decided to tackle herself the profound silence on the issue in the arts. In what she refers to as a ‘TED talk with show tunes’, she and a small cast switch between stand-up pieces, comedy sketches, ensemble numbers and solos to present a broad argument against the assisted dying bill. The unfortunately-timed total tech failure (which led to a brief stop in the whole show) was seamlessly incorporated into Carr’s routine – merely providing more evidence of her ability as a stand-up comic.
Though the humour is constant, the show moves into dark territory quickly and riffs on the dissonance of upbeat show tunes. It is ultimately an emotional plea to the audience to not ‘choose the right to choose’, for fear of the social ramifications for disabled people. Carr is able to open up a side of the debate which has not always been in the public eye. Many of the experiences she relates are shocking to hear; including, on many occasions, having being told by strangers that she would be better off dead. Carr makes the crucial distinction between terminal illness and disability: two very different things that are frequently conflated in the assisted dying debate. This draws attention to the ludicrous corporate language that has arisen to discuss ethical questions, and challenges our shameful inability to talk directly about painful issues. Carr tries to rectify this by drawing attention to words such as ‘dignity’ which are used to tiptoe around issues of suffering. In one of the most poignant moments of the show, the cast sing to Carr while she is lifted into a hoist; her point being that ‘loss of dignity’ is only a point of view. Carr wants to us to think about what we mean when we say ‘dignity’ and ‘palliative care’, and reclaim these as a means to truly support the lives of disabled people.
In the supporting cast, Isaac Bernier-Doyle, Stephanie James, and Claire Willoughby are strong performers. In particular, ‘Palliative Claire’s cabaret number strikes the ironic tone of the whole show particularly well. Bernier-Doyle and James’ romantic number is a hard duet to pull off, and the direction could have provided much more for the performers to do while singing. The movement around the stage feels underdeveloped at times. Though many of the songs are cleverly written and well-performed, others contributed much less to the show thematically. The song between Carr and David James exploring the uncomfortable union between disabled activists such as Carr, who is atheist, and the church, seems to stigmatise unnecessarily certain corners of the community. Bernier-Doyle’s song about the cruelty of putting pets down feels a little misaligned with the argument Carr is making. Carr’s defense of her political stance could have been condensed to make a much clearer point overall.
However, the way that the show approaches the issue of assisted suicide is original and stimulating. The audience response to the show indicates its message has been received clearly: this issue needs opening up in public debate, in place of being considered a politicians’ issue. I am sure that the show will initiate new conversations in private, too, and enrich the debate enormously. The show also acts as a reminder of the need within the arts to find the drive to explore and to make work which takes risks in content and in form.
Assisted Suicide: The Musical played The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre on the 18th January for one night, back by popular demand.
Photo: Manuel Vason