DramaReviewSouth West

Still Alice – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: Christine Mary Dunford (adapted from the book by Lisa Genova)

Director: David Grindley

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

Dementia can seem one of nature’s cruelest conditions. Young on-set Alzheimer’s is even more vicious.

Lisa Genova’s book Still Alice, published in 2007, was first adapted for the stage by Christine Mary Dunford before it was then made into an academy award winning film, starring Julianne Moore.

Genova’s central character, Alice Howland, is a world-renowned Harvard psychologist and linguistic expert. Married to another successful academic, the couple has two grown-up children, Lydia and Thomas.

We are introduced to Alice at the top of her game. She shares the thrill of teaching and the adrenalin rush from performing in her talks around the academic world. But Alice has noticed some forgetfulness, struggles for the right words and unexplained disorientation. Small things at first, but the frequency and situations becoming increasingly compromising. Eventually, she refers herself for medical advise possibly hoping for some condition relating to menopause. However, she is confronted with the devastating diagnosis that will overturn her life, and that of those around her. 

Sharon Small plays Alice with the greatest sensitivity. Ingeniously, in Dunford’s adaptation, this ‘real Alice’ is accompanied throughout by Eva Pope’s, completely convincing, ‘other Alice’. Unreal, but totally believable, as Alice’s subconscious inner-self, Pope’s Alice is not yet affected by the deterioration of the mind of Small’s Alice. This ‘other’ voice providing the reassurances and reminders the ‘real’ Alice craves. It’s a stark contrast to the family’s initial response as they seem so many steps behind comprehending her disease and the support she needs.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is a cluttered, busy home. A comfortable, yet chaotic, domestic base through which the couple passes as they conduct their active professional lives. As Alice’s mind starts its decay the set becomes a metaphor for her state of mind. Bit by bit furniture, then rooms, are rolled out of sight until, in the final scene, the stage is stripped bare except two small chairs in which Alice and John try to hold on to anything they can retain of their lives. It’s a little obvious, but the point is well made, as the layers of Alice’s mind are stripped away, thus the many complex and interconnected strands of their daily life is ripped apart, to reveal a couple only able to hold hands as a way of keeping their connection.

It is in the later stages of this play that it really starts to take hold of your emotions. Initially the whole feels rather episodic and a little expositional to explain the bleak facts but as the play concentrates on how the relationships between the key characters change it really evolves into something more deeply engaging. The relationship with the son is underdeveloped, with Lydia we only latterly see some real empathy develop. Martin Marquez’s John manages the tricky task of keeping our sympathy while he struggles to balance his wife’s, and his own interests (not necessarily the same). What pulls at the heartstrings is watching even Pope’s Alice finally unable to withstand the forces unwrapping her mind. Ultimately even she gives in to this cruel condition and can no longer support her ‘real’ self.

It’s a miserable subject but Still Alice is not depressing at all. It doesn’t let us off the hook. There is no happy ending. But we do witness a sensitive and compassionate insight into a condition that is very likely to brush all our lives in some way which we would all benefit from understanding. It has its shortfalls, but is a great example of how to tell a good story, and good theatre can engage our attention, helping our understanding.

Touring nationwide | Image: Geraint Lewis

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Devastating dementia

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