Based on an autobiographical best-seller of the same name by Matt Haig, this production of ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ has been imagined for the stage and directed by Jonathan Watkins with the text written by April De Angelis.
This is a fascinating exploration of the impact of mental health on the sufferer and their loved ones, made all the more credible because it is based on the author’s true experiences. It deals with how depression feels and how it is judged by society in an accessible and poignant manner, with wit and humour too. Matt Haig says he wanted to write about depression in a way that isn’t depressing and this is certainly achieved in this stage adaptation.
The piece starts with 24 year old Matt in the grip of a crushing, incapacitating depression. His anguish is so debilitating he almost deliberately steps off a clifftop in Ibiza. The part of himself that rejected this suicide is personified as his older self and the play goes on to tell the story of his journey back to self-belief.
There were excellent performances from all six cast members, in particular the central roles of Matt (Phil Cheadle as older Matt and Mike Noble as younger Matt) and Matt’s girlfriend Andrea, beautifully played by Janet Etuk. The stage was bare except for a large three part mobile structure which appeared to represent a thought cloud with spikes sticking out of it – presumably to indicate the pain of depression, though this wasn’t clear. When Matt’s despair was at its worst, he was almost pinned to this structure unable to move.
The powerful and life affirming message is that you need to stay alive because of the person you are going to become. You can use previous bad days as a weapon against future bad days because you have beaten them before. The device of having the older Matt as a narrator for the audience and interacting with his younger self is clever. It provides a post traumatic perspective and adds a lot of humour.
With the love of an extraordinary woman and the support of his family, Matt finds a way back through books and writing. The spikes on the thought cloud are partially neutralised as they are blocked by great works of literature. The story comes full circle when older Matt relapses into anxiety about how his new book will be received and young Matt helps him see that if someone reads the words and gets even the tiniest bit of help it was worth doing.
It was a little surprising that the subject matter didn’t generate a stronger emotional investment from the onlooker. The message is powerful and the audience was fully engaged but if a strong emotional reaction was the aim, the overly stylistic representations of the impact of mental health got in the way somewhat.
Even so, no doubt book sales of ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ will soar after as this production reaches a wider audience. And it deserves to. Reasons to Stay Alive continues at the Crucible Studio Theatre from 19 to 28 September at 7.45pm with matinees at 2.15pm on Thursdays and Saturdays. (Availability is limited so don’t delay.) The production then tours to Bristol Old Vic, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Northern Stage, HOME Manchester, York Theatre Royal and Leeds Playhouse until 16 November. For further details please see ett.org.uk