Still Alice – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
Still Alice – Review
West Yorkshire Playhouse, February 2018
by Sandra Callard
The West Yorkshire Playhouse are showing a brave and compelling drama of the best-selling book of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, part of a groundbreaking festival of theatre focusing on dementia and curated by people living with the condition. The book was previously made into a startling film in 2014 that won Julianne Moore an Oscar for her performance as Alice.
The huge stage in the Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre is already set with practically every prop needed for each scene, and the lighting very cleverly zones in on the particular part of the stage that contains the props necessary for each scene. The actors simply transition from one set to the other, quickly, seamlessly and unobtrusively.
Alice Howland is a 50-year-old Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University, and her husband, John, is a research scientist at the same institution. They have a happy and stable marriage and two grown-up children. Alice is preparing for an important lecture she is to give at the University, when their world is shattered by Alice’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Sharon Small gives a mesmerising performance as Alice, as she struggles to bring all of her professional knowledge and power of words to her aid. Alice has the help of her more confident inner self, given a stage life by a quietly persistent Ruth Gemmell, who stays near Alice, giving advice and help when she struggles to find the right words. This technique could become intrusive and cumbersome, but Gemmell plays it just right, as she gently helps Alice recover the elusive words.
Alice’s anguish of a woman who has studied words all her life and achieved great distinction, and then to have that skill slowly taken away, is portrayed by Small with astonishing range as tears, anger, shame, and, remarkably, humour come to the fore.
Alice starts to lose her way outdoors, and eventually inside her own house, as seen in one of the most blistering and heart-rending scenes where Alice can’t remember the way to the bathroom.
The outlook is bleak for Alice, but she faces the daunting task of living with a determination and humour that is touching and admirable, as she clings more and more to the inner self that she knows is still there somewhere.
Alice’s diagnosis affects every member of the family, and John, beautifully and movingly played by Dominic Mafham, has to struggle with Alice’s terrors when he is offered his dream research position which will crown his career, but will require them to move to another part of the country.
“Intelligence and compassion”
Alice and John’s son is expecting a baby and their daughter is hoping for success on the stage, all of which will by-pass Alice shortly, and the helpless position the family find themselves in is terrifyingly apparent.
This is a difficult subject to tackle in ninety minutes on the very close and personal stage of the Playhouse, but it is performed with an intelligence, compassion and integrity that engenders a perhaps hitherto unknown understanding of this disease.
The performance is hypnotic, and you could hear the proverbial pin drop. An unexpectedly wonderful and totally compulsive show to watch.