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Killing Roger
Published on Sunday, 08 September 2013

5 stars

Underbelly, Cowgate (venue website)
1-12, 14-25 Aug, 12:40pm-1:40pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

From the very first seconds of Killing Roger, it’s clear that this won’t be a cheerful tale. We meet Billy: a likeable teenager, just starting to find his way in the world, powerfully portrayed by the clearly-talented actor Graham Dron. Billy regularly visits a neighbour called Roger, at first to gain credit for a school course but later simply as a friend. And up to that point, it’s just a simple and heart-warming story – of a boy who becomes a better man, by learning to care for another.

But Roger is old; he’s sick, and he’s tired. And if you’ve glanced at the title, you’ll already have guessed what he ultimately asks Billy to do.

Roger is also a puppet.  He’s already there, life-size and sitting in a chair, as you file into the theatre – and I confess that in the half-light, I was convinced he was a human actor wearing a mask.  He taps his fingers and nods his head; his chest rises and falls in time with his “breaths”.  The two puppeteers, Nicholas Halliwell and Louisa Ashton, extract a range of gestures and emotions that’s nothing short of extraordinary.  At one point Roger sinks in his chair in a kind of compassionate resignation, and I don’t think any living man could have captured that moment any more eloquently.

The action’s set almost entirely within Roger’s flat – which lends the play a creeping sense of claustrophobia, as the reality of the situation begins to close in – but there are a few elegantly-judged moments of release, particularly when we see the younger Roger woo his wartime sweetheart.  There are a host of carefully thought-out moments, as Billy’s initial disgust turns into genuine affection.  And if the script’s constructed with care, the same attention to detail imbues the whole of the production.  Lawrence Illsley’s live music is superb, a gentle accompaniment which turns menacing when it needs to be, and the lighting’s spot-on too: in a strikingly clever device, the play’s darkest moment is exactly the one that’s lit most brightly.

If there’s one criticism to make of the finely-honed script, it’s that Billy’s role in Roger’s planned exit seems a little contrived.  It’s made perfectly clear that Roger could take his own life, if he chose to; but he’s an old soldier, and prefers to die at another man’s hand.  Such a demanding request is perfectly in keeping with Roger’s delightfully cantankerous persona, but it’s not a scenario which any advocate of voluntary euthanasia would espouse, and I can’t help feeling that extra layer of moral ambiguity counts against this play’s contribution to the ongoing public debate.

And yet, by stepping off the well-worn pathways, Killing Roger delivers something both magnificent and terrible: an uncompromising, visceral representation of what assisted dying actually means.  The crux scene is brutal, feels like it goes on forever, and demonstrates a cruel reality that no number of TV documentaries will ever manage to drive home.  Overall, this is a wrenchingly emotional play, which plays its audience’s sensitivities with superlative skill.  As the planned day arrives and the clock kicks down to zero, Roger asks: “Are you crying, Billy?”  He was; and so was I.

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