'Still Alice' at the Cambridge Arts Theatre
Some plays are meant to change your life. Still Alice is one. It shows the suffering of dementia with such skill it opens windows in the mind . Familiar concepts like Alzheimer’s can never be the same again. The language around it is altered by this play and in it the audience travels to a deeper level of compassion. It might be what drama is all about.
Trust an American to make it all so entertaining . Still Alice takes place in a breezy well-to-do living room in a Cambridge ( Massachusetts) apartment. The massive fridge is central, a symbol of all the affluence around the couple, Ali and John who are successful, fast talking clever academics at Harvard University. They take their privilege for granted. Life is good. Son Thomas is a self-absorbed young married man , Mark Armstrong does a brilliant line in impatience tinged with guilt as he strolls in and out of the wealthy home and his reassuring parents’s lives. Daughter Lydia ( the name so carefully upscale) is Ruth Ollman tetchy and critical of an overachieving mother. Husband John, subtly played by Martin Marquez, is a scientist , one time co-author with his wife of some well-received books. Yet the character with true genius creation is the younger Alice herself, Alice as she was, as she remembers herself. On stage all through the play Eva Pope as the still sentient Alice sticks with her creator, reassuring, questioning, as she attempts to make some sense of the fractured world she faces. This device is clever. It allows us to hear what Alice is really thinking. When even alter-Alice becomes confused we know things have got bad.
But in this remarkable play the Director, David Grindley manages to take us along as a timeline of loss flashes up the date on a screen above the stage. The opening scenes are mildly alarming. As she searches for an explanation of why episodes in her daily life are sometimes confused Alice gradually realises she is stricken by a frightening mental condition. Small incidents of forgetfulness make her family aware in stages that the adored, even feared, mother they knew is fading. Her husband stays a steady rock but he attempts to follow his own career rather than abandon a longed for new research post. At one point, the decision to be brutally realistic about his wife’s deteriorating state seems set - and understandable. But even he changes.
It was a book written by an academic neuroscientist Lisa Genova (at Harvard) then adapted for the stage . This is its British premiere run. Meanwhile it has been a film. It’s hard to imagine how, as you watch the events on stage. No photographic version however ingenious could substitute for the anguished three dimensional people before us in all their vulnerability. And Alice - so intensely and humanly realised by Sharon Small is at the core of it.
The heartbreaking highlight of this intelligent drama is surely Alice’s speech given, as she says, while she still can. And her very human hope that even though she will forget she ever gave it, that will not matter, the fact is she did. Don’t miss the chance to hear and see a great actress more real and moving than you could imagine.
‘Still Alice’ runs until 21st October