Anxiety, depression, suicide: difficult things to talk about, let alone create a compelling and enjoyable piece of theatre from. With 1 in 4 of us experiencing a mental health problem each year and suicide being the biggest killer of men under the age of 45, we’ve really got to try and keep the conversation going.
“Reasons to Stay Alive” is an English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres co-production based on Matt Haig’s bestselling 2015 book of the same name, a candid and surprisingly funny memoir of his own experience of depression.
The show starts with a young Matt (Mike Noble) attempting suicide in Ibiza, and from there we follow his story as depression gradually takes over his life. With the support of his girlfriend Andrea (Janet Etuk), Matt finds ways to cope and navigate his way through the panic attacks and the paranoia, a horned demon and all of the other terrifying stuff that’s going on in his head.
With a subject this important, and a book that’s had a fair whack of publicity, there’s quite a bit of pressure on director Jonathan Watkins and adaptor April De Angelis to get it right. And they absolutely do.
As short and sharp as Haig’s original text, this is contemporary theatre at its best. Each scene appears to have been meticulously thought through and the cast of six are impressively tight, almost to the point of showing off. A scene in which they’re jogging on the spot, calling out names of famous people who have also suffered from depression (it will make more sense when you see it, trust me!) is pleasingly in-sync and reveals the hours of a gruelling rehearsal schedule. Physical theatre and dance elements are used confidently and appropriately to convey Matt’s state of mind. At one point the ensemble’s Tai Chi-style movements not only signify a more positive mental state for the protagonist but actually create a sense of calm that washes over the audience too.
Two versions of Matt are always on stage – Mick Noble’s younger Matt and his older self, played by Phil Cheadle. This theatrical device may be a little clichéd, but both parts are played with such skill that it works and follows the thread of Haig’s book well. In fact, Haig’s distinctive voice is all over this piece, and so it should be. Not only is the show peppered with astute one-liners, but the literary devices are given a really nice treatment too. Tongue-in-cheek lists, such as “Things you think during your 1,000th panic attack” are presented as pull-out scenes that punctuate the main action. A sheet, for example, is held up with the heading “Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression” whilst the cast throw in the lines. “Being poisoned by a prawn” was a particular favourite.
Designer Simon Daw’s imposing set is effectively ambivalent (a broken egg shell with spikes, perhaps?) and emphasises Matt’s sense of claustrophobia and distress. The show unashamedly presents itself as pure theatre, where a bed sheet signifies a table and a shopkeeper wears her shop as a costume. Because it is all so playful, we’re more than happy to suspend disbelief.
A critique of this show was always going to be difficult to separate from a critique of the book itself. It is a story that simply needs to be told, one that achieves that rare and beautiful quality of being both intensely personal and massively universal. It’s uplifting too. The audience laughed a lot, but laughter was also accompanied by knowing nodding and some tears. I’d go out on a limb to suggest that most people who have suffered from depression will be able to relate to this show, as will anyone who has known or supported a friend or family member through dark days. Effective and vital. Just go see.
Reasons to Stay Alive was reviewed at York Theatre Royal. It will be showing at Leeds Playhouse 12 – 16 November, find out more and get tickets here.