Touring – reviewed at Richmond Theatre, London
This is World Alzheimer’s Month. It’s a topic which is rarely out of the news and no wonder when it affects nearly one million people in the UK alone. There have even been reports in the national press this week that living near busy roads, with their inherent pollution, could be a possible cause. Being overweight, smoking, an unhealthy lifestyle…
So a revival of Christine Mary Dunford’s powerful and poignant play Still Alice is not only timely but welcome. Frankly, the more the public is aware of this horrible, indiscriminating and pernicious of diseases, the better.
We probably all know someone who has been diagnosed with dementia, in one of its many forms. For some of us, “at a certain age”, we are relieved to be told that our forgetfulness is down to our time of life rather than the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Some aren’t so fortunate.
What the public does know is that once that terrifying diagnosis is made then a death sentence has been given. There is no cure, although scientists are working hard to find one, and one can only make the best of what time is left.
Still Alice, a Leeds Playhouse production currently on a national tour, which I caught at Richmond Theatre, is beautifully made and wonderfully acted with Sharon Small giving a fine and touching performance as a Harvard professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “I wish I had cancer,” says Alice. “I’d have something I could fight.”
It seems doubly cruel that a woman who has spent 25 years in the top echelons academia, and devoted her life to research and teaching cognitive language, should be robbed of the ability to think and speak as she celebrates her 50th birthday.
David Grindley’s inventive direction sees the stage initially cluttered with the domestic minutiae of family life. The furniture wraps around Alice like a security blanket. But the set disappears, piecemeal, throughout the 90-minute production, until there is just a table left, as the disease takes hold, robbing Professor Alice Howland of her memory.
He uses a second actress, here Eva Pope, to play Alice’s conscience or inner self who gives a very effective voice to all those fears and nagging doubts whirling around in Alice’s brain.
We first meet Alice sitting at a desk trying to work but it’s hard. She keeps losing her train of thought and is becoming forgetful. Words escape her. It’s frustrating and making her short-tempered.
Alice’s husband John (Martin Marquez) is also an academic and the two high flyers have spent their lives combining a successful marriage with top positions at one of the world’s leading universities.
But soon her condition threatens the future of their relationship as he copes badly and wants to pursue new challenges in his own career while his wife slips further into inertia.
Is it the menopause, she wonders? The symptoms are very similar. No cause for concern then.
The episodic nature of the play takes the audience from March 2015 to today.
We follow Alice’s decline from a brilliant don, who loves public speaking, to a dishevelled woman who turns up at work, at 2am, in her bunny slippers and dressing down.
She forgets to put the oven on, gets lost while out running, and, worst, wets herself. It is harrowing and relentlessly distressing to watch, particularly if you’ve had love ones experience the same.
“There’s a hole in the floor!” she screams, terrified at what is happening to her.
The family cope in different ways. The two grown up children, who had left home to forge their own lives, now return and rally around, while a scared John becomes more remote, burying himself in his work.
When her doctor suggests she talk about dementia at a conference, John is understandably worried that she won’t be able to cope, but it turns into a courageous and final flourish.
Sadly, there’s not an upside to Still Alice. It is, understandably, upsetting, bleak and uncompromising with few moments of lightness.
But it is a sharply observed, bold and courageous portrait that captures the bravery of one woman’s battle against a malevolent and unrelenting disease.
Still Alice is touring to King’s Theatre Edinburgh (Sept 25-29); Norwich Theatre Royal (Oct 1-6); Yvonne Arnaud Guildford (Oct 9-13); Cambridge Arts Theatre (Oct 16-20); Plymouth Theatre Royal (Oct 30-Nov 3); Liverpool Playhouse (Nov 6-10); Glasgow Theatre Royal (Nov 13-17); and Festival Theatre Malvern (Nov 20-24).
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