Reviews Theatre

Whose Life is it Anyway?

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 24 February 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:486
  1. Sum Yee Chan, senior house officer in dermatology (sumyeeyorkies{at}
  1. Middlesex Hospital, London

    Directed by Peter Hall Starring Kim Cattrall The Comedy Theatre, London, until 30 April

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    One of the questions that Claire Harrison, the central character of this play, asks of her doctors is “What is the point of giving me back my consciousness if I cannot use it?” Harrison, played by Kim Cattrall, is a sculptor who is left quadriplegic following a road crash. She uses her wit and intelligence to deal with her situation, sometimes engaging in sexual banter with hospital staff, sometimes opting for more emotional soul searching. Her life has been saved through the hard work of one Dr Emerson, but her consciousness is the only part of her that is intact. The medical staff, perhaps made uncomfortable by Harrison's constant questioning or perhaps to ease her emotional suffering, give her sedative drugs. But whose suffering is really being eased? The patient's or the doctors', and whose life is it anyway?

    Brian Clark's play, written in 1976 for a male lead, initially in the West End, was a hit with Tom Conti. It has since been performed by female leads on Broadway as well as being made into a film starring Richard Dreyfuss. It raises many difficult issues, the most difficult of all being when Harrison learns that she will not get better, and so decides to find a means of dying.

    In the light of Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for The Terminally Ill Bill and the Mental Capacity Bill, which are both currently before parliament, the play raises especially apt and topical questions. Lord Joffe's bill, if passed, would allow people to help those who are terminally ill to commit suicide, and the Mental Capacity Bill would allow people to give somebody the power of attorney to make decisions on their behalf if they become too ill to decide for themselves, or make “living wills” about withholding treatment.

    This play is not afraid to probe deeper into these difficult issues or to show the reality of Harrison's situation. Her death, if she is allowed to die, may be extremely distressing if it occurs through dehydration or “toxin build up.” The script has been updated to make references to two famous recent cases, those of “Miss B” and Diane Pretty.

    Most of the action takes place around Harrison's hospital bed, where she engages in witty encounters with Sister Anderson, who is too “professional” to show any emotion, the student nurse who is only just starting out but has already learnt not to talk about anything personal, and the hospital orderly who is the only person free enough to connect with Claire Harrison as a person.


    The play raises topical questions

    Dr Emerson, the head of the unit, is Harrison's main adversary. He is not shown in a bad light, but only as trying to do the best for his patients. His registrar, however, grows more sympathetic to Harrison's wishes. Finally, she resorts to the legal system with a bedside hearing to try to get her way.

    The message for doctors seems to be that we need to listen more to our patients and treat them more as people. The message for everyone is that the debate about euthanasia must be continued.

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