When Still Alice was premiered at Every Third Minute - a festival of theatre, dementia and hope – in Leeds earlier this year one man came up afterwards to tell Sharon Small how much he had enjoyed the performance.
“He said: ‘I have dementia and I loved that. But I won’t remember it tomorrow’,” recalls the actress.
How sad, I suggest.
“Yes,” she replies. “But it was really joyful in that moment. Which was important to see as well.”
Still Alice, which comes to the Liverpool Playhouse on November 6, is a new stage adaptation of Lisa Genova’s debut novel about a world-renowned 50-year-old Harvard academic and linguistics expert, Alice Howland, who is diagnosed with early onset dementia – a disease which takes hold rapidly and changes her relationship both with her family and the world around her.
Julianne Moore won an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for her portrayal of the stubborn and driven Alice in the 2014 film version of Genova’s story.
But this stage production, newly adapted by Christine Mary Dunford, is – Small contends – “incomparable.
“We’re doing quite a different interpretation because we have the device of Herself – in the book Alice very much talks to herself, and so the playwright put that on stage as well. Eva Pope plays the voice in my head who is still more together.
Sharon Small (Alice) and Martin Marquez (John) in Still Alice. Photo by Geraint Lewis
“And our consultant, Wendy Mitchell, said that’s what she does. In her book she writes to her old self and says ‘gosh, look at me now, do you remember when you used to be like this and I can’t do that anymore’.
“There’s this inner thing. And quite a lot of people experience that as well. They’re looking at their new selves, thinking – ‘gosh, that’s not me. Why am I being like that?’ in their more lucid moments.”
The story is certainly resonating with the audience, many of whom seek out Small after the show to talk about her performance and their own family experiences.
She explains: “What has been apparent is that people are just coming and saying ‘I’ve learned so much about this disease’.
“Someone close to us brought their entire family because their grandmother has it now. And she said it was fantastic for them because they were all looking at their behaviour within the grandmother’s dementia, and realising where they were not being patient, where they were not seeing her still as a human being.
“Quite often this disease can be dismissed as…I have a line in in where I say ‘I’m not someone dying. I’m someone living with dementia’. It’s just a really difficult disease to deal with.
Eva Pope (herself), Sharon Small and Ruth Ollman (Lydia). Photo by Geraint Lewis
“More people have come away more enlightened I think, and although it’s a very sad situation, it’s uplifting as well. It’s saying, she’s still in there, she’s still that person. She has moments of lucidity.
“At the beginning she’s obviously incredibly lucid, a high-functioning individual and then as that disease starts to progress, those periods of lucidity become more intermittent.
“I’m really feeling honoured to be doing it, telling that story.”
The 52-year-old may be best known to audiences for her screen work including About a Boy, Mistresses, Murderland, Law & Order: UK and Sgt Barbara Havers in the Inspector Linley Mysteries, but she has a long list of theatre credits stretching back more than a quarter-of-a-century and including stints at the National, Donmar Warehouse and RSC.
Interestingly though, it is almost quarter-of-a-century since she last toured, partly because of screen commitments but also because she was raising a young family.
What does she consider when deciding on a role – such as Alice?
She explains: “Without harking on, there’s a dearth of parts for my age group. That’s old news. So this is a great part for an actress. I get to be young, sprightly, physically very together, a high-functioning individual, and then to go to an explore the physicality of this as well as trying to master this.
“It’s a great challenge as an acting role.”
It seems theatre could offer more challenging and satisfying work for an older actresses compared to television perhaps.
Ruth Ollman (Lydia) and Sharon Small as Alice. Photo by Geraint Lewis
“Theatre is generally much more dialogue, and tried and tested dialogue, and a really good structure,” Small says. “It’s a little bit more storytelling and less visual. And the very nature of a visual medium is that usually they want to put beautiful people in it.
“Even though men my age and people that I used to be too young to play opposite continue to have loving, sexual relationships on screen, we don’t. We get wiped off. And those women stay 40-41 at the most.
“There are obviously some people who cross over on that – and it’s getting better, it is shifting a bit. But usually they’ve got major problems, or major issues. You don’t always see fantastically healthy relationships between a man and woman who are near the same age, on screen, I don’t think.
“It’s important to have that discussion. How many people do you know in your circle who are with people much older or much younger.
“In theatre I think they do – they set up family units much more matched, and people have intelligent conversations and really speak to each other that quite often doesn’t get written on screen.”
Meanwhile she hopes Liverpool audiences will embrace Still Alice: “I think it’s a really good story and it’s worth coming to see, and it’s emotionally and sensitively told I hope.
“I think it’s important to bring this play to different communities, rather than it being in London. It’s a subject that crosses every divide.”
Still Alice is at Liverpool Playhouse from November 6-10. Tickets from the website HERE