U.K. Review: "Still Alice" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage Blog United Kingdom Critic

This season, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been tapping into a wide variety of stories from all corners of the globe, bringing the audiences of Leeds a diverse and multicultural programme that brings modern, ubiquitous issues to the fore. Currently playing in their Courtyard Theatre is Christine Mary Dunford’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s best-selling novel Still Alice which, as part of the Playhouse’s Every Third Minute Festival, will undoubtedly further the cause of making dementia key talking point in our society.

Still Alice is set over a period of three years and follows the story of Dr. Alice Howland (Sharon Small), a Harvard professor with an illustrious career and comfortable existence with her husband John (Dominic Mafham), also a professor at the university, and her two children Thomas (Andrew Rothney) and Lydia (Alaïs Lawson), a lawyer and an actress respectively. Alice’s world, however, begins to crumble as she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and her family is pushed to breaking point as they witness her deterioration and are faced with moral decisions that could alter the course of their own lives.

 Sharon Small

Sharon Small

Steadily pacing along during its 90 minute running time, Still Alice is a poignant and unflinching piece of theatre that brings its audience face to face with the reality of living with an incredibly distressing mental illness. Director David Grindley carefully extracts moments of tension, lightness and raw emotion from Dunford’s adaptation of Genova’s book, creating an environment that truly draws in its audience. The theatre becomes a closed off, focused space that plays host to this clean-cut, pure piece of naturalistic drama.

Unfolding amidst Jonathan Fensom’s set design, which powerfully echoes the deterioration of dementia by being at first full of furniture and objects from Alice’s everyday life and gradually becoming a hauntingly empty space, the cast of Still Alice create some beautifully nuanced performances. Small crafts a highly memorable, affecting portrayal of the Harvard professor who clings onto every shred of who she is as her illness develops, while Mafham excellently portrays her busy husband trying to secure the future of his dreams whilst navigating his own moral compass. Lawson also crafts a strong performance as Alice’s daughter, and alongside Rothney’s sensitive performance as her brother, the two truly demonstrate the power of family coming together to support their loved ones in times of crisis.

Ruth Gemmell also crafts an engaging performance as a version of Alice’s self, invisible to everyone but Alice, interacting with her and emphasising key moments in the story. There are times, however, when I felt confused by the character’s purpose. It felt odd to have another presence attempting to push the dramatic tension of scenes even further when such moments would have worked fine on their own.

The action is more than concentrated enough without the presence of an external character, thanks to Jason Taylor’s economical lighting design, which highlights particular areas of the stage to contain the action, but also thanks to Fensom’s design choice to have a cyclorama depicting an evolving skyline hovering above the stage. Underneath this shifting sky, we are reminded how this one single story is universal, and as a character Alice is able to be sympathised with; she ultimately evolves into a prominent talking point.

Still Alice is at times harrowing and upsetting to watch due to the nature of its realistic style. There are few light moments throughout, but those moments are made all the more powerful thanks to Grindley’s direction. It is a piece designed to provoke responses from its audience after the final blackout, and really inspires reflection and discussion in an engaging and gripping way.

Still Alice is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 3rd March. For more information and tickets, visit: https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/still-alice/