On tour until November 17
Is it just me, or do we tend to think of Alzheimer’s as peculiarly British? In fact, am I allowed to say, there seems plenty of evidence that it seems to be rife in America… One thing’s for sure, it’s something we must all dread, especially as we grow older; every time we forget something , become disorientated or do something daft (how can you possibly mislay a slice of pizza? OK, binned or eaten most likely, but still). Yes, of course, we all do all of those things, and we still all worry.
It begs the question, would you prefer to be smart: bright or beautiful – yes, men as well. The eponymous Alice is both, exceptionally so, and sitting through her decline is a hard thing to watch. She is just 50 when diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and she, and her family, have to learn to adjust. What strikes you early on is how exceptionally busy and driven they are; the personal apparently all too often sacrificed for the professional; how on earth are they going to cope now, when Me time equates to going all out to achieve ambitions?
The set immediately strikes you as a mess: kitchen to the fore, but left and right switching, eg from living room to doctor’s surgery. And gradually, the things in the kitchen itself begins to shift, the jumble reflecting the confusion in Alice’s mind. Inevitably, the setting slowly begins to pare down. The one thing which is constant is the backdrop, with the date in huge letters, inexorably marking the passing of time, and Alice’s loss.
And full marks to the cast, for this production must involve discomfort, even distress; nearly everybody knows somebody with dementia (the worst thing is looking into their eyes when, fleetingly, the real person looks back at you). This horrible disease is nearly as hard for the carers to endure as the sufferer: fear; shame; anger; sadness. Moments of joy are also fleeting, and all the more precious; in one standout scene, Alice has to make a speech about her condition, and I doubt watching that, and the poignant ending, left many dry eyes in the theatre.
Sharon Small is incredible, making you want to accompany her on every step of this frightening journey, and so is Eva Pope as Herself, Alice’s inner voice. Again, it was so moving to watch her trying to look after Alice, tending her so gently with the costume changes, as if she were a child. However, you could question this device since one of the scariest aspects of the disease must be the sense of isolation, being completely cut off from the world and everything familiar. Martin Marques as husband John also has a battle on his hands, and convincingly conveys his constant frustration, the constant battle of career v. caring. In difficult situations, a curious kind of selfish preoccupation emerges: who is doing the most to be truly helpful? Who is suffering the most? Mark Armstrong admirably manages to engender sympathy as son Thomas for example despite being so needy that he seems to blame his mother for failing to continue to be herself, his loving companion.
Even more interesting, Alice still comes to life when arguing with her daughter, unable to reconcile Lydia’s desire to be an actress with her determination that she should concentrate on getting a good education. And the way Ruth Ollman evolves from prickly creature to being the best source of comfort and support is quite remarkable.
There was, perhaps surprisingly, a terrific turn out, and rightly so because this is a terrific play. You could sum it up as ‘everything you ever wanted to know about Alzheimer’s but were afraid to ask’ but it makes for compulsive viewing. And it really should be compulsory.