Muddy reviews: Still Alice
A thought provoking piece of theatre about early onset dementia and a family undergoing a huge life changing crisis. Entertaining and educational, I came away with a much greater understanding of this cruel disease.
Still Alice tells the story of 50 year old Harvard Professor of linguistics Alice (Sharon Small), who is diagnosed with young onset Alzheimers. This is a beautifully simple yet powerful portrayal of a family learning to live with effects of this disease which quickly robs Alice of her memory, language and ultimately herself.
The set was simple, the cast small but the performance was captivating. The story was told over a two year time frame and the appearance of a date on the back drop gave the audience a haunting reminder of how quickly this disease progresses.
I have written about dementia on several occasions, and thought I would remain detached but I found this an incredibly emotional hour and half. For anyone who has experience of living with dementia it will all seem very familiar, the early warning signs- confusion over words, disorientation and forgetfulness.
Having ‘herself’ on stage in the form of actress Eva Pope was a clever way of showing the audience Alice’s inner voice. A constant conversational presence, the two battle with memories and control as Alice slowly gets overlooked and shut out of decisions.
As a high functioning academic, Alice battles daily to test her memory. In an incredibly poignant moment, she discovers a letter to herself explaining that if she can no longer remember the answers to a set of important questions, she’s should find the sleeping pills at the back of her draw and take them.
The conversation between Alice and her daughter about what it feels like to have dementia gave us a real understanding from an often unheard perspective.
“It’s like living in a Dr Seuss world”
Dementia is scary for everyone involved – watching and often grieving the loss of a loved one before they’ve even gone. Everyone reacts differently and this was beautifully illustrated in the varying family dynamics across the two year time frame. The daughter (Ruth Ollman) found a bond she’d never had with her mother as the roles reversed and she found a softer more understanding side to her mother.
The son (Mark Armstrong) struggled with the loss of his strong intelligent mother and towards the end was grabbing at any opportunity to recreate their past shared experiences.
The dynamic between Alice and her husband John (Martin Marquez) felt incredibly true and the pain at being robbed of his wife was never more evident in the arguments with his children about how to care for her. “I know her better than anyone.”
Dementia is a complex issue to get across in less than two hours but Still Alice managed to convey the key stages of the journey – fear, denial, anger, aggression, loss, pain and grief. There were moments of light and comedy along the way, such as the self diagnosis of menopause and the bucket list of things to do before her memory disappears completely.
It’s a long time since I’ve witnessed a standing ovation, but absolutely well deserved. I left the theatre feeling overwhelmed by the power of the performance and sad that this disease now affects one in six people over the age of 80. However, it was incredibly thought provoking and I hope that as it travels around the country it will affect positive change by continuing to raise awareness and action to support the fight against dementia.
If you’re reading this and in need of support, Age Space is a comprehensive online resource offering advice on caring for ageing parents with lots of useful information on dementia.