Still Alice is based on the debut novel by Lisa Genova published originally in 2007 and subsequently a best-seller for Simon & Schuster. It then went on to become adapted for the big screen in 2014 starring Julianne Moore who received an Oscar in the role of Alice. The current adaptation for West Yorkshire Playhouse is by Christine Mary Dunford as part of Every Third Minute Festival of theatre, dementia and hope.
Director David Grindley focuses on a family in crisis coping with Alice’s early-onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Alice is a 50-year-old professer of linguistics at Harvard University with a succesful academic career throne into array by her illness. Her husband John is a research scientist still looking for a career break and finding it increasingly difficult to get to grips with the changes in Alice’s psyche.
They have two children: Tom following a career in law and happily married with a child on the way; and Lydia, an aspiring actress and something of a black sheep in the family. The fact that Alice as an academic has been seriously rational and logical makes dementia all the worse for her to handle. Ruth Gemmell as ‘Herself’ is Alice’s inner voice that frequently makes sense of the scenarios where alice is been overlooked and talked over.
The vivid authenticity of the play benefits from consultation with Wendy Mitchell who, despite dementia, produced the blog Somebody I used to Know. Jonathan Fensom’s set is initially quite cluttered but is gradually honed down until it is just Alice and John sitting on deck chairs, indicative of how Alice’s mindmap has been transformed.
David Grindley’s direction is masterful with fine attention to detail, and whilst it is an excellent ensemble performance, it is Sharon Small as Alice who shines brilliantly with verve and veracity. Although this piece will have particular resonance for those with family or friends living with dementia, for all of us it is a moving testament that, despite being frequently painful (in a cathartic way) is ultimately a ray of hope in the darkness.
Until 3 March at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
Reviewer: Rich Jevons