IN THE last few decades, just as our wider media experience has become more tailored to our own interests and preferences, so theatre has found itself a new role as a place where people facing a particular long-term health problem can come together to share the experience. These shows are usually greeted with tremendous warmth and emotion, even when their dramatic quality is debatable; but there’s no doubting the passionate intensity of Christine Mary Dunford’s touring stage version of Still Alice, the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova about a brilliant woman academic – a linguistics professor, aged only 50 –who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Still Alice, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ****
Manpower, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****
Tipping the Hat, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
On a stage crowded with the domestic stuff of a busy everyday life, Dunford introduces us to the main characters of the drama, in the shape of Alice, her husband John, their two twenty-something children, and another character known as Herself, who represents some kind of essential Alice who remains with her even as she begins to lose her faculties, and is played with memorable flair by Eva Pope.
In truth, though, the presence of Herself finally seems to add little to the tremendous, layered subtlety of Sharon Small’s central performance as Alice, a woman simultaneously declining into incoherence, and retaining flashes of her old steely intelligence. The beautifully-researched care with which she recreates Alice’s decline is both heart-rending to watch, and a powerful embodiment of the loving attention sufferers from Alzheimer’s need; and although the play can offer no easy answers, it makes a beautiful job of demonstrating the truth of Philip Larkin’s famous assertion that when all else fades, what will remain of us is love – both the love we give, and the love we inspire in others.
If Still Alice is a play dedicated to the task of raising awareness of Alzheimer’s, Two Destination Language’s devised show Manpower attempts a much wider vision of the big political forces shaping and reshaping our society. On a stage covered in impressive chunks of wood – with a couple of DJ turntables to the rear – we first meet a man, the kind of dysfunctional type who obsesses about solid-core hi-fi cables, and will talk about them at length.
He is soon joined, though, by a woman in a red dress and sparkly jacket, a lively Bulgarian with a thing for British men, who first flirts with him outrageously, and then begins to deliver a right-wing lecture about the history of British men and their working lives, in which she roundly condemns all the social changes of the last 40 years – including feminism – for robbing British men of their work and virility.
Meanwhile, the bloke has become the strong, silent type, methodically using the wood on stage to build an ominous-looking wall. The Brexit-era political metaphor is obvious; but what is disturbing about the show – created and performed by Alister Lownie and Katherina Radeva – is its uneasy complicity with the woman’s views. It seems to want to satirise her reactionary grandstanding; but since she is the most vivid character in sight, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that this show is making her point for her, whether it wants to, or not.
The great songwriting comedy duo Flanders and Swann were also a shade ambivalent about the English middle-class life they both satirised and embodied; but in their case, no one could doubt the genial spirit behind the work of two men who were both lifelong socialists, of a quiet sort. In Tipping The Hat, the brilliant Scottish theatre veteran John Bett creates a superbly enjoyable Flanders and Swann tribute show, performed with some comic flair and in gorgeous voice by actor-singer John Jack, and pianist and bass-baritone Gordon Cree; and if - following a magnificent performance of Flanders and Swann masterpiece The Slow Train – a short political drama about the Beeching railway cuts sometimes seems to be struggling to emerge from the light-touch celebratory format, Jack and Cree soon return to their entertainingly camp Scottish presentation of two fine artists of Englishness, in their inimitable prime.
Still Alice is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today, and Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 13-17 November. Manpower is on tour until 28 November, with dates at Tullynessie & Forbes (tonight), Lyth, Greenock, Glasgow and Peebles. Tipping The Hat is at Oran Mor, Glasgow today, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 2-6 October.