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Still Alice

by on 19 September 2018

When Knowing Fades

Still Alice

by Christine Mary Dunford, based on a novel by Lisa Genova

The Infinite Group and West Yorkshire Playhouse at Richmond Theatre until 22nd September, then on tour until 24th November

Review by Eleanor Lewis

A couple of years ago I was visiting my uncle (who had no immediate family of his own) in a nice, west London care home. He had dementia and had only recently arrived in the home. We had, from my point of view, a rambling, seemingly pointless ‘conversation’ for some time until he looked me straight in the eye and said “you must be broke by now?” meaning “how on earth are we paying for this?” and referring back to conversations he and I had had some years before about how he wanted to be cared for in old age. Immediately after this comment he reverted to his distraction, his question forgotten, but I took a step backwards, startled. The thing that caused me most anxiety whenever I saw him was “does he know, does he know what’s happening, and how does he bear it?” His momentary connection with me had made me think he did know.

Still Alice, Christine Mary Dunford’s stage adaptation of Lisa Genova’s bestselling 2007 novel addresses many of the questions about dementia that bother most of us and at the same time succeeds in presenting a comforting and a surprisingly positive view of one woman’s descent into young-onset dementia.

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Alice is a Harvard academic with a highly successful career. She’s married to John (Martin Marquez), also a successful academic, with whom she has two adult children Lydia and Thomas (Ruth Ollman and Mark Armstrong). We first see Alice in the midst of her busy life, working, making time for her husband, keeping track of her children’s lives and worrying about her daughter working in a coffee shop to fund her acting lessons. Gradually, she begins to notice that she’s forgetting things and struggling to find words while talking. She goes for her usual run and cannot recognise where she is, or how to get home. She sees a doctor, and after discounting other possibilities – menopause, depression etc – she is given the diagnosis of dementia.

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The play then takes the less predictable route and although Alice is distressed by her diagnosis, rather than fight or deny the disease, she learns to live with it. This is not to say that all is plain sailing from here on. Lydia and Thomas react differently to the change in their mother: Thomas finds it more difficult and resents the ‘loss’ of his mother, Mark Armstrong playing him appropriately as a transitional ‘boy-man’. Lydia feels closer to a mother who now empathises more easily with the career choices she has made. John supports his wife but struggles with the effect her dependency could have on the last stage of his career (and the stage which would put him on an equal footing with her). This is a functioning family though and they support Alice as best they can with love, and ultimately by enabling her to talk to people about what is happening to her while she still can.

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The creative skills of writer Christine Dunford and director David Grindley manage to turn Alice’s personal journey into a piece of theatre that is highly effective. The shrinking of Alice’s world is reflected in Jonathan Fensom’s setting which begins as distinct living room and kitchen sections of the stage, with other spaces used to provide offices and coffee shops as required, but as the dementia takes hold and the play progresses the kitchen and living room blend further into each other and there are fewer and fewer items of furniture and props on stage, reflecting the gradual falling away of memory and skill.

The action is clearly lit but surrounded by a darker frame, and the passing of time over a relatively short period is indicated by the date simply typed in the centre of a misty back drop, there is always the slight sense that the darkness will fall completely.

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The audience is constantly engaged with Alice. Whilst being diagnosed Alice is given small memory tests to do: remember an address, remember this sequence of words, and you sense everyone in the auditorium mentally taking the same test and ticking off what they’d remembered, or not. A second actor, Eva Pope, personifies Alice’s inner voice – ‘Herself’ Sometimes the inner voice can supply a missing word, sometimes a reminder, sometimes she is physically close to Alice, sometimes further away but she is a calming presence and the essential Alice.

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The main character in this work is dementia and its presence in the life of one woman, so the supporting cast can really only support, which they do very well, creating a believable background against which Alice’s journey into dementia plays out. Sharon Small’s portrayal of Alice is rather noble. Although her world begins to close in and she can no longer remember people and things, she is not crushed by the disease, the essence of Alice remains and she retains a level of dignity. This is despite the fact that the play does not shy away from the realities of dementia. There is a point at which Alice cannot remember where the bathroom is at a critical time and her memory doesn’t return quick enough.

As a piece of theatre, Still Alice works perfectly and has been beautifully directed by David Grindley. Whether or not it’s a comfortable watch probably depends on your relationship with dementia. Left to my own devices I might not have seen this play, having seen it I would highly recommend it. It’s a rare achievement. It succeeds in doing that thing that is so often badly done with good intent: it presents a much feared or misunderstood subject in a way that enables anyone to engage with it and learn from it without feeling that a point is being made. It is perfectly balanced and leaves its audience uplifted, informed and ultimately positive.

Eleanor Lewis
September 2018

Photography by Geraint Lewis

From → Drama, Reviews

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