Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
The portrayal of early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, touring to the King’s all week, will certainly resonate with many, thanks largely to Sharon Small’s magnetic central performance.
Lisa Genova’s novel about Alice Howland, a Harvard professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 50, is perhaps best known for the film that followed. Christine Mary Dunford’s stage adaptation – given here by the Infinite Group and Leeds Playhouse – may predate the movie, but Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance looms large over any version of the story. A strong central performance is therefore a necessity.
Sharon Small certainly lives up to this challenge, with an outstanding display of craft and commitment that is always believable and suitably emotional. In fact, the production benefits from two thoroughly impressive Alices, as Eva Pope plays a projection of her inner thoughts.
Pope (another well-known television face) is also extremely good, and in a purely dramatic and structural sense, the device of splitting the character in two pays dividends. Since so much of the story is seen from Alice’s point of view, it makes things considerably easier in that the character has someone to talk to; things would otherwise be considerably more difficult to stage.
However, in another sense, the invention of ‘Herself’, as Pope’s character is styled, detracts from the play. Splitting some of Alice’s responses between two performers does lessen some of the emotional impact. While there is still considerable depth to the piece, it is impossible not to feel that there could be more.
The way that Herself becomes less voluble and more physically distant from Alice during the play makes sense but comes across as too neat. Similarly, the way that Jonathan Fensom’s overstuffed set becomes progressively more sparse as the disease progresses, and Alice’s memories and sense of herself start to disappear, is too artificial.
The supporting performances, while always impressive, suffer from some underwritten roles. Martin Marquez convinces as Alice’s husband, but their two children (Mark Armstrong and Ruth Ollman) are just too formulaically contrasting to work on an emotional level. Anna Andresen and Micah Balfour’s doctors are simply there to further the plot.
Martin Marquez, Sharon Small, Eva Pope and Micah Balfour. Pic Geraint Lewis
While there is considerable force to the production, particularly for the large and growing number of people with personal experience of the disease, it is often undermined by a sense of trying too hard.
Some of it verges on soap opera – this is not just early-onset Alzheimer’s, it is affecting a brilliant academic, as if the fragmenting of a younger, brilliant mind would somehow add to the tragedy. And there has to be a rare genetic element to it that threatens her children and unborn grandchild. Not all of this is necessary, and some of it is skated over thereafter.
Similarly, a scene where Alice addresses a conference seems more like a consciousness-raiser than a realised piece of drama, and sits oddly with what surrounds it. David Grindley’s direction is functional but tends more towards the prosaically expository. When it works – as in the closing scene – it is beautifully limpid, but elsewhere inspiration is lacking.
None of this is the fault of the two Alices, whose excellence anchors the show. However, what should be an almost unbearably poignant production remains merely involving.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes (no interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000
Tuesday 25 – Saturday 29 September 2018.
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed, Sat: 2.30pm.
Click here to book Edinburgh tickets online.
Still Alice plays Glasgow in November:
Glasgow Theatre Royal, 282 Hope Street, G2 3QA
Tue 13 – Sat 17 Nov 2018. Daily: 7.30pm; Mats Thurs & Sat: 2.30pm
Click here to book Glasgow tickets online.
Tour website: http://stillaliceplay.co.uk/.
Still Alice on tour:
Tue 25 – Sat 29 September
0131 529 6000
Tue 1 – Sat 6 October
01603 63 00 00
Tue 9 – Sat 13 October
01483 44 00 00
Tue 16 – Sat 20 October
Tue 30 – Sat 3 November
Tue 6 – Sat 10 November
0115 709 4776
Tue 13 – Sat 17 November
0844 871 7647
Tue 20 – Sat 24 November