Review: Still Alice (West Yorkshire Playhouse)

A fascinating study and finely judged depiction of how one family copes in the face of early-onset Alzheimer’s

The West Yorkshire Playhouse is this spring producing on 'Every Third Minute', a festival promoting 'theatre, dementia and hope' and the headliner is this piece, which was written and premiered back in 2013 in Chicago, a year before the Academy Award-winning film of the same name. Few having watched that movie will forget Julianne Moore’s delicate, distressed evocation of a 50 year-old doctor grappling with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Not an easy task then for Sharon Small, but she flies in the face of the challenge and fronts this difficult role with a fresh take.

Early on in the story, Alice is seemingly fulfilled, working hard and happy yet begins to realise she is forgetting the odd word or where she is during a run. As the story unfolds – through a patchwork of often short snappy scenes with her family and at doctor’s appointments – Small so skilfully navigates the subtle increments traversed during the various stages of this ghastly disease. We are in banana skin territory here for any actor, but she is completely believable, balancing Alice’s more lucid passages against the ones where she loses the thread.

The play is undoubtedly informative and insightful about this disease, yet it is even more intriguingly an exploration of how the closest people to Alice respond to the whole shocking unravelling.

One person who perhaps understands Alice best is 'Herself', an imagined character who shadows her throughout the play, often stating her inner thoughts. These moments felt like extraneous additions to the action; every finespun move on Small’s face already imparting more than enough information about Alice.

The gripping conflicts arise between Alice and her ambitious husband John, played with restraint by Dominic Mafham, and her daughter Lydia in a spirited, fine performance by Alaïs Lawson. There’s an excruciating tension in a brilliantly executed scene towards the end where the three family members argue over and about a frightened Alice right in front of her. It’s at this juncture where we question whether John should continue to pursue his career and uproot Alice geographically in light of her deterioration. The consummate writing and astute acting suggests there is not an easy answer.

Perhaps as agonising is Lydia and Alice’s relationship. Both are initially at odds as their desires crash in to themselves, but towards the end you feel the illness has somehow unearthed the love between them that was cached for so long. Much in Alice’s life recedes during the course of the play, and so too do the prejudices she harbours towards her daughter’s acting career.

Jonathan Fensom’s set cleverly intensifies Alice’s story. At first we see a cluttered, naturalistic and random collection of interiors surrounded by a vast screen enveloping the stage. As Alice loses her handle on things, the set ominously peels back, the scenes lengthen until by the end there is space. Alice wants to have a sabbatical with John and read books, and though her mind may be muddled, this fact is crystal clear to her. John is conflicted. It’s a tender dilemma which we can all subscribe to. What does it really take for us to sit back from the achievements, the increasing rush and rumble of daily life? Certainly no easy answers here.

Still Alice runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 3 March.