Wednesday 6th November 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
Reasons to Stay Alive, based on Matt Haig’s number one best-seller about his struggles with his mental health, takes to the stage with the help of Adapter April De Angelis. The play explores the darkest depths of a struggle with mental health while providing an unfiltered view of the difficulties facing both the sufferer and those around them. It also looks to the issue of mental health with a hopeful gaze, contextualising everything in relation to the transformative nature of time passing by.
Matt Haig is of course at the centre of this autobiographical work. Older Matt (Phil Cheadle) appears just in time to save Younger Matt (Mike Noble) from the precipice of his deep despair. Girlfriend Andrea (Janet Etuk) is his ‘rock’; his stability, his safety belt and his comforter. Mum (Connie Walker) and Dad (Chris Donnelly) worry ineffectively from a distance and even more ineffectively face to face, as many relatives do when faced with helplessness. Various other characters offering insightful fleeting appearances – including a Demon and wryly comic placard wearer – are played with impressive speed and distinction by Dilek Rose.
Humour is wry and dry – and often as dark as the overhanging emotional clouds. It’s also playful in places. The sequences about the ludicrous things people say to those with depression and other conditions is particularly well done – it claws at the root of prejudices and ignorance in a way that is simultaneously disarming and brutal.
Noble is a great lead, giving the issues presented a vulnerability made up of layer upon layer of anxiety; physical weakness, mental anguish, inability to cope with day to day activities, OCD traits regarding loved ones and on and on. The symptoms and challenges of his poor mental health evolve and combine to create seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s with the words of Older Matt or Andrea that Matt is able to achieve more rational reflection, with Etuk giving a great performance as the desperate girlfriend doing all she possibly can.
The connection between Etuk and Noble is a delicate one and while the usual chemistry of romantic attachments never makes itself known, her patience and love and his dependency provide the basis of their union for a considerable length of time, allowing us to see the impact of poor mental health on a variety of relationships. Later scenes with Older Matt offer a less than gentle reminder that nothing is certain and mental health is a changeable beast, and it’s in those moments that Cheadle’s performance reaches new ground.
There’s no distinct plot as such, nor does the play function as a fairytale with happy ending or revolve around inspirational self help tips, though those things are of course underlying elements. This is at its core a study of the internal working of a mind in turmoil. We have full access to Young Matt’s every thought along with the pep talks of older Matt. Exchanges occur as snatches of time from past or present and director Jonathan Watkins allows the piece to fall into expressive movement as the action segues into various depictions of the struggles being faced.
Watkins’ embracing of physical storytelling carries its greatest impact when flanked by the separating parts of Simon Daw’s set design – an unidentified shell clearly imitating a skull, but with spines and cracks and missing portions visible. When the exchanges become more abstract, the set becomes an increasingly apt and stylish backdrop. Likewise, Jessica Hung Yun’s lighting design and composer Alex Baranowski’s contributions to the overall sense of surreal time and space are highlights.
This is a play which gives great insight into the mercilessness of a head space invaded by the blackest clouds of poor mental health. It acknowledges the ups and downs in all their proportions and seeks to humanise a social issue which is becoming ever more prominent in modern society. If you’re puzzled by the notion of depression or debilitating mental health, or you’re simply interested to learn more about what it’s like inside the mind of a sufferer, take yourself to see this play. It’s stylishly directed, well performed and very insightful. The central messages of the piece are certainly worth listening to…keep on keeping on…survive until you can live again…live for others…live for yourself…live for the inevitable joy which will eclipse this present misery. Wise notions indeed.
Reasons to Stay Alive is a co-production if An English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres. It plays York Theatre Royal until November 9th 2019 and you can find tickets here. Following this, the show plays Leeds Playhouse 12-16 November 2019 – you can find tickets here.