Assisted Suicide – The Musical, Southbank Centre, London ★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

One year ago, MPs voted down the Assisted Dying Bill, which would have legalised assisted suicide in the UK. Disability campaigner Liz Carr, who was protesting against the Bill when the vote went down, has been a vociferous opponent of legalising assisted suicide, and her ‘musical’ – which is, as she admits herself in her opening monologue, “more a TED talk with songs” – puts her point of view across in an amusing manner.

The crux of Carr’s argument is that while assisted suicide legislation starts out as dealing with people with terminal illness alone, once the statute books have a provision it becomes easier – and, if European countries such as Belgium are anything to go by, inevitable – to extend it to cover people with disabilities.

And it has to be said, Carr constructs a powerful and amusing argument. In addition to her own monologue, she stars as an alternate version of herself in a pre-recorded video styled in the film of a mournful pro-assisted suicide video, using the facts of her own disability to present a version of the opposite viewpoint to hers that reinforces her own point.

Having Carr at the heart of two very different arguments highlights how each side in the debate relies on ‘spin’ – of which this show is, of course, a component. A sketch where the rest of Carr’s cast brainstorm euphemisms for assisted suicide to make it sound more palatable (using genuine suggestions such as “humane self-termination” and “dignicide”) underlines how PR has inveigled itself into the debate.

Unfortunately for a show which gives itself a musical title, it is the song sequences that really distract from the show’s strengths. Composer Ian Hill has crafted a number of songs that are often hilariously satirical – most notably ‘Suicide Tourism’, as the cast rattle through a list of countries which have introduced assisted suicide legislation, ending up at Switzerland (“all Nazi gold and Heidi/…if you’re feeling suicide-y”), which provides an effective lead in to Carr’s deconstruction of the romantic view of that country’s clinics. But all too often the songs repeat too much, going on for too long and then stuttering out without giving the audience a decent applause point (although in one or two cases, such as a paean to a stray dog about to be put down, that is no bad thing).

There is also a fair amount of deconstruction of each song going on, which provides for a smattering of good jokes but instantly punctures the potential power of such numbers. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the show’s big 11 o’clock number, as Carr sings onstage about not wanting to die as her onscreen alter ego sings about the opposite.

It is a powerful moment, until the duo start bickering immediately afterwards (Carr berating her video counterpart for “turning my big solo number into a duet”). More effective is the subversion of the heckler phenomenon, as Gillian Dean begins to walk out while shouting at Carr, only to pick up a microphone on her way and start presenting an alternative viewpoint. It proves to be an effective way of inserting a genuine opposition to Carr’s thesis in an evening that is otherwise purely from her own point of view.

Elsewhere the cast members do their best – David James’ turn as the Pope raises some laughs, and his own monologue about getting older offers its own pensive moments, while Isaac Bernier-Doyle delivers the best vocal performances of the show, both in his solo numbers and in the ensemble pieces.

And while Stephanie James and Claire Willoughby provide good support, Jane Turner’s choreography and Mark Whitelaw’s direction don’t tend to allow the actors to give it their best. The temporary nature of the venue – black drapes converting the Royal Festival Hall’s large stage into an auditorium the size of a modest Fringe venue – is no help, with lighting cues and actors failing to come quite together.

Assisted Suicide – The Musical was only on for two nights, as part of the South Bank Centre’s Unlimited Festival. One can imagine that a longer run in a more permanent venue would allow the production team to iron out some of the wrinkles, and to shed some of the florid touches that detract from both the entertainment value and the power of Carr’s argument. And that would be a good thing, for the attempt to marry the two is a commendable one, and it is a shame that it doesn’t quite work.

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