Still Alice is a powerful story telling one woman’s account of living with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Alice Howland is a highly respected professor, living with her equally successful husband, John. Those we perhaps view as having a ‘perfect life’, with their grand house and two lovely children, may be amidst a storm behind closed doors. We see Alice slowly begin to notice her memory glitching, before gradually fading away to the point where she no longer recognises her loved ones, or herself. The way this is demonstrated is careful and beautiful, without the need for over-acted expressions or long exposition.
Sharon Small is simply divine as Alice. Her subtlety and delicacy is the mark of a true actress, and she translates her character’s thoughts and emotions in a naturalistic and believable way. Equally Dominic Mafham as her husband, John, is perfectly cast. He displays the struggles of a partner confused and hurt whilst watching his loved one fade away, and is in some scenes the character we empathise with, which is a hard task to fulfil.
The rest of the cast are mainly filling supporting roles, perhaps with the exception of Ruth Gemmell, who plays Herself, Alice’s inner-thoughts. She is neither blank and separated from the action, nor involved enough and emotive for me to really care about her participation. Her constant chipping in with unimportant thoughts is distracting and profoundly irritating throughout, and I feel this device is used to display emotions where on the off-chance the actress playing Alice isn’t perhaps quite so exceptionally skilled as Sharon Small. We know she’s confused, we know what she’s thinking and feeling through her actions without the need for the patronising inclusions of Herself. ‘Show not tell’ works perfectly without this character, though I think this is due to Small’s acting prowess: perhaps a weaker actress would require this crutch.
The book by Lisa Genova is no doubt the talent behind the writing, though the adaptation by Christine Mary Dunford is a lovely translation for the stage. The direction by Dvid Grindley is clearly intelligently discussed so as to accurately portray the progression of Alzheimer’s. The sound, designed by Gregory Clarke, adds subtle emotion without being intrusive. Top points must go to designer Jonathan Fensom, whose set design is intricate and meaningful. The once busy and bustling set full of kitchens, ladders, tables, chairs, slowly fades throughout the show to leave two chairs: Alice and John, together living in a moment of peace and contentedness our eponymous hero will soon forget.
The play runs at a smooth 90 minutes with no interval, which works well given the poignancy of the show. Catch Still Alice at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 3rd March.
Photograph credited to Geraint Lewis.