Review: Still Alice, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Sharon Small as Alice Howland and Andrew Rothney as he son Thomas in Still Alice at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Sharon Small as Alice Howland and Andrew Rothney as he son Thomas in Still Alice at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
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When the West Yorkshire Playhouse was looking for a production to headline its inaugural Every Third Minute Festival putting dementia centre stage there was an obvious choice.

Still Alice has been a bestselling novel, a hit play and confronts head-on a scenario none of us really want to think about - what if we woke up one day and couldn’t remember the way back to our own house or forgot the words we had known since childhood?

Here, dementia isn’t a condition of old age. Here it creeps into the house - and the mind - of 50 year old linguistics professor Dr Alice Howland and gradually dismantles everything she has ever learnt.

The central character is beautifully played by Sharon Small, who benefitted from having the ear of Wendy Mitchell, who was herself diagnosed with the condition aged just 58. Over the course of 90 minutes we see the frustrations, the anger and the sadness which dementia brings, but more than that we see there is still a life to be lived. It’s not the same one as before, but as the set is gradually pared back to all but a couple of chairs it reveals a world where it is the small things, like the taste of ice cream and the sound of the sea, which matters.

For the stage adaptation, Christine Mary Dunford made the inspired choice to write in a part for Alice’s inner voice. It could have been clunky device, but there is a quiet subtlety to Ruth Gemmell’s interpretation which magnifies the confusion and heartache of someone who knows there will be a day when she won’t remember the name of her own children.

This is an uncomfortable watch, but the Playhouse’s decision to stage the festival should be applauded. By the end, the rustling for tissues to dry already red eyes was audible, but as anyone touched by dementia knows, it’s the silence surrounding the disease which can be the most deafening of all.

To March 3.