Matthew Lunn reviews Still Alice based on Lisa Genova's novel starring Sharon Small at Richmond Theatre as part of its UK Tour.
Richmond Theatre (UK Tour)
19th September 2018
UK Tour Information
Sometimes a performance comes along that is so arresting that it imprints on your memory, an exemplar of drama as a source of truth. Julianne Moore’s Oscar winning turn in the 2014 adaptation of Still Alice, the debut novel of neuroscientist Lisa Genova, came flooding back as soon as I entered the theatre. A night of ‘compare and contrast’ seemed imminent, but my feelings were misplaced. This production, which uses a script produced a year before the film’s, offers a profound insight into living with early onset-Alzheimer’s, uniquely focusing on its effect on one’s humanity.
Alice Howland (Sharon Small) is 50, and lives an enviable life. She is a Harvard academic, with research coveted by universities across the world, and happily married to fellow scientist John (Martin Marquez). Her son, Thomas (Mark Armstrong) is thriving in his fledgling legal career, while her only source of dissatisfaction is her daughter Lydia’s (Ruth Ollman) decision to spurn the family genes and ditch academia for acting. Yet she is concerned that her memory is failing her, and as the months progress her lapses become more alarming, leading to a life-changing diagnosis. Her deterioration is viewed not only through her transformed relationship with her family, but the way in which she engages with her own mind, anthropomorphised as ‘Herself’(Eva Pope), through regular dialogue that the audience hears, but other characters do not.
The reason this adaptation works so well is that the interplay between Alice and ‘Herself’ is affecting, and believable, when it could have been gimmicky in the wrong hands. The device enables us to see the disconnect between Alice’s feelings and her behaviour, lending great drama to moments where she is infantilised by family and well meaning doctors. As the director, David Grindley, observes in his programme notes, Alice’s rationality is integral to her character, and ‘Herself’ provides an often heartbreaking insight into her decision making, even as it baffles and upsets her loved ones. Pope’s performance is warm and gentle, her dialogue becoming less loquacious and more emotional as the play progresses. Yet she never loses the energy and curiosity which reminds us of her essential humanity. This is complimented by Small’s wonderfully expressive performance, which not only captures the intense fear and frustration of the illness, but the moments of simple joy that it cannot take away.
The play runs for an engaging 90 minutes, covering a huge amount of compelling ground. It does however suffer slightly from narrative shortcuts. Moments of exposition can be a bit jarring, such as when Thomas and John remind each other how old they are, or when Lydia and Alice reflect on how long it had been since they saw one another. Indeed, whilst Armstrong does an excellent job of depicting Thomas’s unintentional shortcomings as a son – repeated requests for Alice to tell him the time of Lydia’s play are a masterclass in passive aggression – his supposedly deep bond with her is given very little stage time.
Conversely Lydia’s relationship with Alice, which becomes more empathetic as the illness takes its toll, is examined more closely, and Ollman’s performance expertly depicts the dwindling innocence of the young carer, whose own dreams must be put aside. Yet this role is, at times, over-simplified, the conflict between mother and daughter, and Lydia apparently absenting herself from family events, feeling more like a narrative necessity than the natural outcome of their relationship. I cannot, however, praise more highly the play’s depiction of John, with Marquez delivering a subtle performance that speaks of the battle between his stoicism and feelings of loss. He and Small work brilliantly together to depict not only the couple’s intellectual kinship, but their desire for the other’s sympathy and companionship, which makes Alice’s journey so bittersweet.
This is an excellent production of Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice, which, unlike the 2014 film, focuses on how early-onset Alzheimer’s affects the titular character’s humanity, rather than familial relationships. Though there are a few narrative shortcuts, it is an engaging and empathetic play which effectively depicts the person behind the diagnosis.