Theatre Review: Still Alice
Following in the footsteps of Christine Mary Dunford, director David Grindley adapts Lisa Genova’s debut novel Still Alice for the theatre to raise awareness of what life is like with dementia. The story, which charts the difficulties a 50 year old professor of linguistics at Harvard University faces since being diagnosed, was first told in the form of a fictional piece in 2007. It is now over ten years later but it is still incredibly important to share today to continue discussions on dementia in an effort to try and reduce stigmatization on it.
With help and feedback from Wendy Mitchell, who is one amongst 40,000 people under 65 in the UK currently living with dementia, the production of Still Alice is a reliable portrayal of its symptoms and effects. This has allowed its audience members to acknowledge the difficulties one with dementia has to face, even if they’ve not had to live with the condition themselves. One of most common symptoms associated with dementia is short-term memory loss, which we see Alice struggling with when she keeps on asking whether her daughter is attending acting school or not. Sharon Small, as Alice, helps us to understand how someone with dementia may feel, describing to her daughter that the frustration at not being able to recall names for objects that are right in front of her as being like wanting to pick up a mug but your brain not letting you.
A particularly striking moment occurs later on in the play when Alice decides to give a speech, despite her very prevalent illness at this point where she is finding it even more difficult to recall information and to think things through, and this time she is in front of a large audience. She speaks into a working microphone; a very effective choice for a prop as it makes it seem like she is giving a speech in real life. Indeed, her speech about dementia talks about what it is really like for her; her will to share her day-to-day difficulties was so captivating that when she stopped talking you felt like you wanted to clap for her being able to bravely and successfully talk about her personal struggles.
Image courtesy of Geraint Lewis
To accompany the action, the stage is filled with large props: a working fridge, a kitchen table and worktops, a carefully selected backdrop to depict a home setting in order to portray the place where Alice feels most comfortable. Gradually, the stage becomes less crowded, until it is only Alice and her husband who remain.
Director David Grindley and designer Jonathan Fensom did this in order to portray “a full life at the start of the play, which at the end is less populated”, an effective dramatization of how Alice loses parts of her identity when she disconnects with surroundings that were once familiar to her.
Image courtesy of Geraint Lewis
Despite living with a progressive illness, the relationship between Alice and her daughter Lydia, portrayed by Ruth Ollman, only strengthens as we see Ruth’s excellent character development as she becomes more reliable and supportive. The addition of “Herself” as another character is an extra dimension as it is a personification of her inner thoughts. Eva Pope, as “Herself” is a wonderful performer who often sits beside Alice during conversations and mirrors her actions. However, it is how she literally picks her back up and holds her at difficult times that generates the most emotional response.
Through these characters we can learn how to be there for people who are suffering with dementia, like the Alzheimer’s Society who strive for “a more dementia-friendly society so people with the condition can live without fear and prejudice.”
Indeed, the audience may have been predominantly taken up by the older generation, but I think we could all benefit from learning more about dementia, whether that’s through buying a ticket here before the play ends on Saturday 10th November 2018 at Liverpool Playhouse, or visiting Alzheimer’s Society online to see how you could get personally involved to help.