Still Alice is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh for one week only (Tue 25 to Sat 29 Sept), and although far from a “laugh a minute” production, it is an important production that many in the audience might for many reasons find uncomfortable viewing because of its subject matter. Still Alice tackles head on the great unmentioned “elephant in the room” that is one of the greatest issues of 21st century life, and how we as a society deal with the issue and those directly and indirectly affected by it - DEMENTIA.
I think it a fair statement to make that many of us know at least one person or family affected in some way by this disease in one or more of its many different variants. We are probably most familiar with Alzheimer’s, but that is only one variant of over 100 known (so far) of this at the moment progressive and irreversible medical condition. Dementia knows no age restriction, its variants can strike anyone from childhood years to elderly, and its effects and rate of progression vary from person to person.
Still Alice is the stage adaptation of the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova (originally self-published), and there has also been a very successful film adaptation (2014). The Alice in our story is Alice Howland, a 50-year-old woman, a professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard and a world-renowned linguistics expert. Immediately with Alice, we are breaking perceived stereotypes of what type of person can be affected by dementia. Our Alice is highly intelligent, has an active career, many intellectual and social interests, eats well, keeps herself fit and has a husband with a successful academic career (although not at her level) and a good family network. Alice knows something is not right with her and once her diagnosis is confirmed knows exactly what is potentially in store for her as her disease progresses.
So much of this work on stage is focused on Alice that someone with the performance skills and performance experience to portray Alice in all her emotions ranging from joy to absolute terror is required, and Sharon Small is Alice here on stage. Sharon gives us an Alice that we actually care about as an audience as we follow her progress over a roughly three year period from initial diagnosis to the present. Alice represents for many of us hidden fears not only for ourselves, but those closest to us, and the hope that we are either spared this terrible disease, or that at worst, medical advances make it possible to slow down its advance to a manageable daily experience, and maybe even one day a cure. Unfortunately for our Alice, her medical condition and her world changes rapidly as her dementia progresses rapidly with devastating effects on not only her, but her immediate family.
Letting us as an audience know what is going on inside Alice’s head is so much part of this story (the novel is written from Alice’s point of view), and that presents obvious issues for staging. This issue is solved by the creation of “Herself”, the inner Alice that she talks to and reasons with. “Herself” is played by Eva Pope and it is not an easy role to play as it always has to be an “unseen” one. We as an audience are the only people who can see “Herself” and that does create some problems at times as this device of the id works to different degrees in different situations throughout our story. Adapted by Christine Mary Dunford, our “Still Alice” stage production has some very interesting concepts that are perhaps not obvious at first glance, but even the stage sets are part of Alice’s life and, as her disease progresses, this world shrinks down to less and less around her. We also see less and less of “Herself” on stage, although we do still hear her.
There is a strong cast around “Alice” in this production, and John (husband played by Martin Marquez) and adult children Thomas (Mark Armstrong) and Lydia (Ruth Ollman) capture well the initial denial then slowly coming to terms with Alice’s condition. Alice’s husband John is perhaps the one most affected and strangely at the time the one least affected by her deteriorating condition as their pursuit of their own academic careers has seen them both leading very separate lives for a large part of their time together. John must here make a choice about his career and that choice has wide ranging consequences for both him and Alice, and it is interesting to see Martin Marquez open up and develop another side to John’s character here.
Still Alice is a production that tells a story in a way that only theatre can. No other story telling presentation can give you the intimacy of a live theatrical production and unlike watching a story (or film) on your television, there is no pause button here; there is no escape from the immersion into Alice’s world that this skilled cast take you into.
Still Alice is a work that raises so many questions, not least of them as to who and what we are as a person. How separate is our intellectual (or spiritual self) from our physical body? What elements of both the visible and the unseen make us who we are? So many questions and no definitive answers to them.
The fight against dementia as a medical condition is ongoing, but we also have to continue the fight about how we all as a society deal with and confront dementia . The one obvious aspect of the people in this story is that Alice and her family have either the money or good health insurance in the USA to get very quick tests and scans done to properly diagnose her condition. They also have the funds for medical care, and that is something that only a small demographic in America have the luxury of having. Thankfully, we have a National Health Service here in the UK that offers free medical care to all irrespective of income, but it is over-stretched and waiting times and support resources can vary enormously from region to region. As with America, those who can afford private medical care may still experience a completely different diagnosis and support package. For myself, I find it totally unacceptable that we spend billions of pounds on weapons of destruction every year while those fighting to find a cure, or at least a manageable situation for diseases such as dementia constantly struggle for funding.
This is not something that can continue to be hidden away, or whispered about in corners of rooms, and support and advice is available from organisations like Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends. A big mention has to go to Capital Theatres Trust who operate both the King’s Theatre and The Festival Theatre for the ongoing work that they do to make their theatres and, where possible, productions as accessible as possible for people living with dementia as well as running an all year round dementia friendly programme of events .
Still Alice also sees performances from 13-17 November at Theatre Royal Glasgow
Review by Tom King