Still Alice

Lisa Genova adapted by Christine Mary Dunford
Leeds Playhouse
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth
to

Sharon Small (The Inspector Lindley Mysteries and much much more) excels in this bittersweet gentle bio-play of early-onset dementia which cleverly shows not only the inside-out view but also the ramifications for relationships.

Following the Oscar-winning success of the screenplay of Lisa Genova’s initially self-published novel, producer Michael Park has reverted to Christine Mary Dunford’s stage adaption for a punchy meander through 18 months of life-changing disease.

Professor Alice Howland (Small) is a super-brainy, published neuroscientist, high-functioning and successful, jetting around the world from her Harvard base to lecture on linguistics. We watch, uncomfortably, as she identifies aphasia and lapses in memory, struggles to find coping mechanisms and slowly deconstructs from the mistress of the international stage to dishevelled, shuffling victim of a terrible disease unable to recognise her own children and frantically trying to remember the way to the bathroom.

Just as she sees holes opening up on the ground around her, so the holes in her brain where "I used to live" multiply and her yesterdays are fast disappearing.

Using the device of an inner voice, ‘Herself’ (Eva Pope), we hear Alice’s thoughts and experience her journey: the anguish of knowing she is losing her every being, her cognitive ability, her train of thought; while her inner discussions and observations, dissemble leaving her only empathy—recognising emotions in others even if she doesn’t know her nearest and dearest any longer. And even Herself eventually drifts away.

Played on Jonathan Fensome’s initially cluttered set reflecting Alice’s mind, the action moves (unfortunately somewhat clunkily) between home, doctor’s offices and further afield but, as her world shrinks, so too does the set with fewer and fewer props and with drifting furniture reflecting the inner turmoil and desperation for the comfort of the familiar.

Family relationships and impact on the humanity of each is explored in vignettes around traditional recipes, decisions about treatment and approaches and the children’s emphasis on home care in familiar surroundings, sacrificing their own time for such responsibilities, while husband John (Martin Marquez) justifies his decision to put his career first should short-term funding for his own lab in a different state come through.

Quickfire moments certainly inform and raise issues: the mutated gene, the unpredictability of Alzheimer’s, the impact on families and futures, what ifs, coping mechanisms and the benefits of exercise but, packed into an uninterrupted 90 minutes, there is little time to empathise with the family characters and there the play stumbles a little leaving the remainder of the cast as also-rans with an educational role rather than investment.

Worthy and impactful with Small superb.

Karen Bussell