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Actress Sharon Small heads to Cambridge to tackle a challenging role with Alzheimer's at the centre of the plot

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Still Alice, West Yorkshire Playhouse. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Still Alice, West Yorkshire Playhouse. Picture: Geraint Lewis

The Cambridge Arts Theatre will provide a stage for the Scottish actress to demonstrate her undoubted talents when Still Alice, starring Sharon in the title role, begins its five-day run on Tuesday, October 16.

Sharon Small. Picture: Dan Bridge
Sharon Small. Picture: Dan Bridge

Having cropped up in a number of very popular films and television series over the years – About a Boy (with Hugh Grant), Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, to name just three – Sharon Small has one of those faces that you know you’ve seen somewhere before.

The play – made into a successful film in 2014 with Julianne Moore as Alice – tells the story of Alice Howland, a stubborn and driven professional at the top of her game who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50.

Taking a break from the filming of a new police drama called London Kills, Sharon, 51, tells the Cambridge Independent how she ended up in Still Alice.

“I’d worked with David Grindley, the director, on a workshop about 15 years ago,” she recalls, “and when it came up, he thought of me for the role – and I was really delighted to be offered it because it’s such a good story and a good part.

Still Alice, West Yorkshire Playhouse. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Still Alice, West Yorkshire Playhouse. Picture: Geraint Lewis

“It’s hard to fill Julianne Moore’s boots, but the play is slightly different in the way it’s portrayed – it’s separate enough to not be as comparable, I think.”

Sharon continues: “I hadn’t actually seen the film but I read the book with my book group. So I knew the book and I looked at the film once I was offered the part.”

The film proved popular with Sharon, who says she found it “so moving.” She admits that Alice is quite a demanding role.

“It’s a challenge to make sure that you are as accurate as you can be in the portrayal, and it’s 23 scenes, all little snapshots of the progression of the disease – from the moment that you start to realise there’s something not right.

“She starts to realise that she is not coping with things that she would normally find incredibly easy. Then, as she starts to battle with that – and as the family starts to come to terms with that – people start to make decisions around her.

“It was really important to make all of these snapshots full of content and honesty and truth about what it might be like – for this person anyway.”

Sharon did some research into Alzheimer’s when preparing for the role. “What was really informative, actually, was videos of people who live with it,” she explains, “because then you could look at physicalities and see that these were very high-performing individuals.”

Sharon believes that we don’t really know enough about Alzheimer’s, but says that there is definitely more awareness of it nowadays.

“I am 51 and so I’m aware that this is getting more prevalent in my age group,” she says, “and one of the things about the play is that it [the disease] is going on for quite a few years before it becomes noticeable.”

As well as London Kills, Sharon has another project on the horizon, a short film entitled Slingshot. Previous television credits include Midsomer Murders, Silent Witness, New Tricks and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries – as well as more recent hits, Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.

“I’ve done quite a lot of long-running series,” says Sharon, “but I have one of those faces that I get mistaken for different people quite a lot – mostly Maxine Peake – and they go, ‘Oh you were really good in that’ and I say, ‘That wasn’t me!’

This writer also detects a slight resemblance to Miranda Richardson. “Yeah, I think that actually, I think I look a bit like her. I’d be very happy to be associated with Miranda Richardson.”

On Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, Sharon says: “I was going into beautiful shows that had established themselves so well, and I just slotted in. I feel very proud, particularly of my story in Call the Midwife – it’s one of my favourite jobs.”

Still Alice runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Monday, October 16 to Saturday, October 20 at 7.45pm, with matinee performances on Thursday and Saturday.

Tickets: £20-£35 (all ticket prices include a £3 per-ticket booking fee)


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