Still Alice

25/09/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Still Alice started life as a novel, self-published by Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova in 2007. It tells the story of Dr Alice Howland, a – wait for it – Harvard neuroscientist with young onset dementia, charting the impact of this terrible disease on both Alice and her family. Its success led first to commercial publication, and then – such was its appeal – to adaptations for both stage and screen. The movie version (which we reviewed in 2015: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/03/17/still-alice/) secured Julianne Moore an Oscar, and it’s clear that the eponymous Alice requires a strong performer.

In fact, this touring production by the Leeds Playhouse utilises two strong performers in the central role. This is playwright Christine Mary Dunford’s masterstroke: Alice’s inner self (Herself) is played by Eva Pope, while her physical manifestation belongs to Sharon Small. The two start off almost identical, dressed in the same clothes, mirroring each other’s moves. Herself does not have much to say, because Alice can articulate her thoughts. As her condition worsens, however, Herself becomes louder and more vocal, speaking up when Alice can not. They become separate entities with bigger spaces between them, but Herself is never less than nurturing and protective. It’s an effective device, performed in an understated and unfussy way that makes it really powerful.

Of course, Alice is not the only one affected by her diagnosis and deterioration: the play focuses too on her family’s struggle to deal with this new version of their wife and mom. She’s no longer a fit and healthy high-achiever, a Harvard professor with an enviable career. Her son, Thomas (Mark Armstrong), who’s about to become a father, is especially troubled: he wants his mother back. He’s confused and angry; refuses to accept reality. Her daughter, Lydia (Ruth Ollman), seems to be coping better. She hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Alice (she’s chosen acting over academia, and Alice thinks this is a mistake), but she’s able to support her mother through her illness with an open mind and gentle acceptance.

But it’s Alice’s husband, John (Martin Marquez), who bears the brunt of the responsibility, and he does his best to care for his wife, while – sensibly – ensuring he looks after himself too. He’s a research scientist, and he doesn’t let his home life impinge on his career. Why should he? Alice has always been a careerist too; she wouldn’t want him to abandon his passions. This tension is beautifully realised, with sensitive direction from David Grindley, and a subtle, convincing performance by Marquez.

The set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, manages to be both naturalistic and metaphorical: we start with a cluttered stage, filled with the detailed trappings of a family home – a fitted kitchen, a three-piece suite – but, slowly, scene by scene, this paraphernalia is stripped away, until we’re left with an empty space, all we – and Alice – can see reduced to the present moment: two chairs, a handsome man with a checked shirt. What’s startling is that this is not an unhappy place; Alice has found peace and acceptance of a sort.

It’s a heart-breaking and thought-provoking piece, with much to recommend it. If I’ve a quibble, it’s the moment when Alice delivers a speech at an international conference. I want this to be more of a battle cry, or at least to illuminate something new; it doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already learned by this point in the play. It’s a climactic scene,  pregnant with possibility, and I don’t feel it achieves all that it could.

Still, that doesn’t prevent this from being an important piece of theatre, and well worth going to see. It’s at the King’s until the 29th September, and will be at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from the 13th to 17th November.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

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