THEATRE REVIEW: Still Alice at Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday

By Dave Doyle | 13/09/2018

THEATRE REVIEW: Still Alice at Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday
Anna Andresen as Dr Tamara, Sharon Small as Alice and Eva Pope as Herself. (Credit Geraint Lewis)

TERRIFIC theatre can make the implausible seem plausible, the fantastical seem factual.

It seldom takes something so familiar as ageing — or mundane as dementia — and lays bare its everyday horror.

Still Alice explores the sad decline of Harvard professor, mother and wife Alice (Sharon Small) afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease in her fifties.

As her occasional forgetfulness becomes frequent disorientation, her independence suffers.

Husband John (Martin Marquez), an ambitious research scientist, must choose between his own long-term success and the family’s.

Meanwhile, aspiring actress Lydia (Ruth Ollman) and fast-rising lawyer Thomas (Mark Armstrong) struggle to accept that the mum who always pushed them is fast losing her faculties.

The show is based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel of the same name, which later became an Oscar-winning movie.

It also draws on a true tale — that of Wendy Mitchell, who recorded her experience in the book Somebody I Used to Know and consulted on the play.

Christine Mary Dunford penned this stage adaptation, giving ingenious insight into Alice’s renegade mind.

The play introduces Herself (Eva Pope), Alice’s inner voice given human form, with whom she has increasingly confused but compassionate chats.

Their tearful conversations, as Alice scrambles to keep a grasp on everything she knows, are heart-breaking to watch.

There are comic moments, while Alice can still laugh at the irony of her rapid decline, beginning at the apex of her career.

And it is heart-warming to see her ambitious family rally around, at great expense to themselves.

I expected to blub throughout, knowing one of my close relatives is gripped by this distressing and incurable disease.

But her story is not Alice’s story, and it was fascinating to see how journeys into dementia can differ.

Still, lines like Thomas’ tearful “I miss you” to his still-living mum are painfully familiar, to anyone whose family has suffered this awful illness.

The production features a host of TV veterans, with a skew towards police procedurals and courtroom dramas like Silent Witness, New Tricks, The Bill and Agatha Christie adaptations.

Small’s depiction of dementia is shockingly accurate, her relatives’ reactions — disbelief, sympathy, anger and grief — entirely believable.

Armstrong’s performance might better suit a Broadway musical, being a little melodramatic for this show’s tone.

But maybe this was a deliberate choice, emphasising his child-like helplessness as mum slips away.

Still Alice is a powerful story with real, everyday relevance. See it at Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday — and don’t forget your handkerchief.