Anyone who has watched a loved one in the grip of dementia will find a real resonance in this emotionally powerful new stage version of Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice.
Fear, frustration, anger, confusion and disorientation go hand-in-hand with a deep sense of love in Christine Mary Dunford’s adaptation presented by the Leeds Playhouse, visiting its Liverpool counterpart as part of a national tour.
Alice Howland (Sharon Small) is a driven Harvard linguistics professor on the cusp of her 50th birthday who seemingly has everything; a brilliant career, loving, high-flying husband, and two healthy grown-up children with the promise of a grandchild on the horizon.
Read an interview with Sharon Small
But when she starts to forget words and conversations, and loses her way during a run, her home diagnosis of the menopause turns out to be hopelessly, and frighteningly, wide of the mark.
Alice and husband John (Martin Marquez) approach her actual diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s in the same way they would a scientific study, but this detached coping mechanism clearly isn’t going to survive the full arc of the degenerative disease.
A series of scenes mark the passing of time over three years as Alice’s dementia progresses, her awareness of her condition slowly receding with ever step of her incremental decline.
“I wish I had cancer,” she says while still lucid. “I’d have something I could fight.”
Eva Pope (Herself), Sharon Small (Alice) and Ruth Ollman (Lydia). Photos by Geraint Lewis
While the subject matter is undoubtedly distressing, Still Alice isn’t all doom and gloom. The family discover and develop closer bonds, and there are simple pleasures still to be enjoyed.
At the eye of the storm, Small gives a wonderfully compelling and completely believable performance as Alice. Her character’s sense of fear and frustration is visceral. In the final stages, her uncomprehending smile is remote but beatific (just as I remember my grandmother’s was).
In Genova’s book, the story is told in the third person. Here Alice’s inner thoughts are presented through the neat conceit of ‘Herself’ (Eva Pope), a warm and witty partner-in-crime and an empathetic double act with her physical manifestation.
Meanwhile as the moving story unfolds, designer Jonathan Fensom’s cluttered domestic set is stripped away piece by piece, mirroring Alice’s failing memory and slowly untethering her from everything she recognises.