Still Alice: The play about dementia Wendy Mitchell has helped bring to life but will never remember seeing

Sharon Small as Alice in Still Alice.
Sharon Small as Alice in Still Alice.
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It was a bestseling novel and critically acclaimed film. Now Still Alice will take centre stage at a new festival of dementia theatre. Sarah Freeman reports.

Wendy Mitchell knows that when the curtain falls on the new stage version of Still Alice she is unlikely to remember any of the key scenes or its most poignant lies. Like the play’s central character, Wendy has also been diagnosed with early on-set dementia, but having acted as a consultant on the West Yorkshire Playhouse production she will watch along with everyone else.

“I have just come from rehearsals,” says the 61 year old. “I can’t remember the details, but I am left with a good feeling. It will be the same when the play opens. I may not be able to recite the dialogue or tell you what order things happened, but I will have a feeling and feelings are important.”

Still Alice, which opens tomorrow, is the headline production of the Leeds theatre’s inaugural Every Third Minute programme. Running across February and March, it’s the first festival of its kind and includes plays co-written by those living with dementia as well as productions simply inspired by the condition.

“It is important for so many reasons,” says Wendy, who first became aware something was wrong when she walked out of work one day and had no idea where she was. “Dementia isn’t something people like to talk about, but talking is what we need to do.

“When people hear the word, they automatically think about the end. I can understand that. It’s what I did too. But dementia is a journey. It is one that has a beginning, a middle and an end.

“As soon as you are diagnosed with dementia there is a danger that you become defined by it. Events like this, which are staged with the people who live with it at its heart, are a reminder that we had talents before the diagnosis and we can still be useful members of society.”

In 2014, Still Alice was turned into a film starring Julianne Moore as the linguistics professor whose memory begins to fade shortly after her 50th birthday and this new stage version sees Sharon Small in the title role.

“I didn’t have any reservations about taking the role, but I knew it came with a lot of responsibility,” says Sharon, who has recently been seen in the television dramas Trust Me and Born to Kill. “I am fortunate, I don’t have any personal experience of dementia, but I was very aware that there was an onus on us all to portray the condition as truthfully and honestly as we could.”

That’s where Wendy has come in. Sitting in from the very first read through, she has been able to impart her own first hand knowledge of early on-set dementia, advising how particular scenes could be played.

“I can’t tell them how to act,” says Wendy, who was diagnosed in 2014. “But really my job has been to fill in the small details. I can tell them how I feel in particular situations, what my response might be.”

Director David Grindley says the whole of the creative team has benefitted from Wendy’s imput, but it has been particularly important for Sharon and Ruth Gemmell who vocalises Alice’s inner thoughts.

“There is a danger with a festival like this, that it becomes about people without dementia putting on productions which they think are worthy,” says Small. “This has a very different feel. The way that Wendy talks about her experience of dementia is very moving and having her as a sounding board has been a privilege.

“Still Alice isn’t representative of all people with dementia, but like Wendy’s own book it is the story of how one woman copes with the diagnosis. It shows her frustrations, it shows her being scared and it shows how her family have to adjust and change.

“This isn’t an easy subject to put on stage, but it is an important one and hopefully this play is just the starting point for a discussion about how we all face up to dementia.”

Still Alice, West Yorkshire Playhouse, February 9 to March 3. Every Third Minute runs to March 31. wyp.org.uk