Based on the novel by: Lisa Genova
Adapter: Christine Mary Dunford
Director: David Grindley
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
One of the most intriguing and appealing things about theatre and live performance is its ephemeral quality – its transient, short-term nature that is here one minute, and gone the next. So it is no accident that Lisa Genova’s best selling novel Still Alice, translates so well to the stage. Opening The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Every Third Minute Festival (because someone in the UK begins living with dementia every three minutes), this is a journey of one woman’s journey from brilliance to bewilderment; competence to confusion; erudite to araldite.
Made into a 2014 Hollywood film that won an Oscar for Julianne Moore, Still Alice charts the cognitive decline of Alice Howland (Sharon Small), diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of fifty. As a published Harvard lecturer in neuroscience she should be at the pinnacle of her powers but when the odd word doesn’t quite reach the tip of her tongue, or a name escapes her, or when she temporarily becomes lost on a familiar run, Alice immediately reaches out for help. The cruelty of this story is that Alice and her husband, John (Dominic Mafham), who is also a neuroscientist, understand in great depth the chemistry, clinical assessments and irreversible degeneration of the neuralgic paths affecting Alice’s brain. Sometimes ignorance can be bliss but a lifetime of study of the brain adds a whole new aspect to a condition such as dementia.
What at first seems like a cluttered design by Jonathan Fensom, it begins to unfurl itself throughout the play. With furniture on wheels and suggestions of rooms in a house familiar to Alice they begin to relocate during scene changes making the commonplace askew into unfamiliar – and as the set starts to slowly disappear, scene by scene, throughout the second half of the play, it is a powerful metaphor for the vanishing synaptic connections increasing at an extraordinary rate in Alice’s brain. This familial setting of Alice’s house means that we are woven into the home of Alice’s family and the effects her condition has upon her husband and two grown-up children – Lydia (Alais Lawson) and Thomas (Andrew Rothney). And it is much credit to the production that as much attention is focussed on these characters too as their mother and wife slips from their grasp.
Adapted for the stage by Christine Mary Dunford for an American audience this is the first time the play has been performed in the UK. Rather cleverly, she invents the dramatic construct of an extra character in the play – ‘herself’. Played by Ruth Gemmell, herself becomes a hybrid of Alice’s conscious, subconscious, friend and confidante. “I will still be here” herself tells Alice when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, “I’m not going anywhere”. Director David Grindley has intelligently adhered to telling the story over an uninterrupted ninety minute running time and Sharon Small brilliantly offers us Alice’s slide into the unknown – through denial, fear, anger and finally acceptance. Breaking the fourth wall towards the end of the play, under the guise of a university-style lecture, everything gets boiled down to one sentence: “Change is frightening and my world is changing all the time”. The adaptation has pace enough to power the play through and keep us inside Alice’s increasingly confused head, but it occasionally lacks a little wit, a little poetry or unspoken poignancy. That said, the final line of the play is one of such beauty that it would be a crime to repeat it out of context.
The working title for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was The Inside of His Brain and, to a certain extent, the stage version of Still Alice, can draw comparisons. It isn’t often that we, as an audience, can become party to something so personal as the inner workings of mind and the consequences a condition such as dementia has on its host and those around them. There is nothing overtly shocking or surprising about this piece: this reviewer came expecting to witness the slide of a woman into the unfamiliar, and that is what the play delivered. That said, it is done with expert power, compassion and sensitivity.
Reviewed on 14 February 2018 | Image: Geraint Lewis