Still looked upon as some kind of stigma in our society, people suffering from Dementia can find themselves in a lonely place not only as this terrible illness gradually worsens but because its many sufferers often feel too embarrassed to open up about the condition. Hopefully, this play – based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel (which in turn had been adapted by Christine M. Dunford for the stage) – raises awareness and a broader understanding towards those diagnosed with Alzheimers.

STILL ALICE charters the gradual decline of Alice (a truly terrific performance by Sharon Small), a 50-year old professor of linguistics at Harvard University – the same place where she had been studying. To say that this incredibly bright individual is a successful academic – much loved and respected by students and colleagues alike – is an understatement. Her husband John (Martin Marquez) is also employed at Harvard as a research scientist and although his academic career is perhaps not quite as accomplished, both he and wife Alice complement each other perfectly not only professionally but on a private level too. To make their success story near perfect they also have to grown-up children: Thomas (Mark Armstrong), a lawyer who is about to become a dad himself (he is particularly close to mum Alice), and Lydia (Ruth Ollman), boxing clever in many aspects but also a bit of a rebel for she has decided to pursue a career in acting as opposed to follow in her parents’ academic footsteps. Alice is anything but happy about her daughter’s choice of career but no matter how much bickering goes on at the kitchen table, Lydia is adamant to study at drama school.

It is the setting of a domestic scenario where nothing seems out of the ordinary, however, things are about to change when Alice experiences memory lapses and forgets simple things such as names, addresses, and even that daughter Lydia has mentioned her desire to enter the world of acting numerous times. When disorientation sets in on top of her forgetfulness, Alice initially puts the symptoms down to menopause but when she forgets to switch on the oven while preparing Christmas dinner and can’t remember how many eggs she needs to make the same pudding she’s been making for years, some inevitable medical tests seem way overdue. The final result is devastating not only for Alice but for her whole family: early stage of Alzheimers!
It’s from that point on that things become harrowing and difficult to watch as we see Alice desperately trying to cling on to her dignity (she looses it when she can’t remember where the toilet is in her own house) and stay ahead of the terminal illness as best as she can. But for how long can she stay ahead? Gradually things, situations, people, past and present become blurred and her increasing disorientation also manifests itself in a very clever stage design by Jonathan Fensom.

Another clever idea is the other ‘Alice’ – simply just ‘Herself’ (Eva Pope wearing a neutral coloured outfit). It’s the conversations between Alice and Herself which add to the understanding and overall drama of the situation though occasionally we get some humorous moments too, for example when Alice looks at her computer ‘memo file’ titled Butterfly. A the bottom of her digital notes is a reminder that if the things she reads cease to make sense then an overdose of pills is in order… though luckily hubby John intervenes by default. As tragic as her condition is, it somehow brings her closer to daughter Lydia.
The play, hard to watch as it is given the subject matter doeshave its uplifting moments, such as when Alice gives a speech about her condition at university, or when John gets offered a top job which would mean he would need to re-locate from Massachusetts to Washington DC… and if the final scene is anything to go by then he can and will accept without neglecting Alice (now no longer recognizing John as her husband though she finds the ‘man’ sitting next to her very nice).

Via a background projection the audience can follow the timeframe beginning with Alice’s diagnosis up to the present day. The cast are terrific in what is a very wordy play with little ‘action’. The fact that the play is performed without an interval is not only taxing for the actors but for the audience as well. Occasionally the dialogue was a little hard to hear (not made easier by the constant coughing of some of the audience members) but that’s about the only criticism.

STILL ALICE runs at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh until 29th September

(Photo by Geraint Lewis)