‘Still Alice’ brings to mind the 2014 film, and Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance. I have not managed to see said film, so I came to the King’s Theatre with an open mind. Christine Mary Dunford’s adaptation makes the story seem like it was meant to be told from the stage; all thoughts of the Hollywood movie disappeared.
Sharon Small was magnificent, effortlessly embodying the complex character of Alice. She captured her determination, her intelligence and her strength. All this, whilst not shying away from her decline and vulnerability. Originally the debut novel of Lisa Genova, the story explores the heart-breaking effect of early-onset dementia on a 50-year-old professor. Alice had a picture-perfect American life with a loving husband, two children, and an impressive career. Her only issues were the strained relationship with her daughter and the fact she was growing rather forgetful, but no one’s perfect. Alice believes she’s simply ‘growing old’, but after an MRI scan she is diagnosed.
Dates, starting in 2015 all the way to the present, are projected on the back wall: a looming presence of time as we watch Alice disappear before our eyes. Subtle additions like the ringing of a bell brought drawing tension to the moments of calm. A dread of the inevitable with this agonising disease. Three years is all it takes for Alice to forget her children’s faces.
The staging also mimics her decline, beginning with realistic, movable set pieces, displaying both a home and hospital environment. Slowly the stage clears, so slowly the audience almost doesn’t notice until we are left with a barren landscape. This perhaps represents Alice’s mind, her life, or her increasing isolation and loneliness. At a particularly emotional moment, Small breaks the fourth wall, directing her moving speech to the audience, bringing many of us to tears.
Dunford’s version brings a new twist to Alice’s internal monologue by personifying it through another actor, Eve Pope. This ‘herself’ character allows the audience to see Alice’s decline clearly and effectively, but also shows us Alice’s relationship with herself. In moments it can be frustrating and dismissive, in others, tender and kind. Pope complements Small very well and gives a stand-out performance. She brings to mind Sarah Paulson’s conviction and power.
The director, David Grindley, succeeds in capturing the realism of the family dynamic. Although the subject was so dark, the audience did burst out laughing at times, like the moaning of a son not getting his dinner on time, or a husband’s lack of emotional awareness. We could see ourselves within that family, and couldn’t help but imagine what we would do in their shoes. When her husband could no longer hold it together, our heart broke with his. When Lydia, her daughter, was desperate to help and make up for lost time; when Thomas, her son, was so scared that he felt anger, and when Alice herself expresses, ‘I wish I had cancer … something I could fight’, we all understood. We all felt it.
A glorious success in its own right, Still Alice is unmissable.
Still Alice will also be showing at the Theatre Royal Glasgow from the 13th to the 17th of November – book tickets here