Writer: Matt Haig
Adaptor: April De Angelis
Director: Jonathan Watkins
Reviewer: Alice Hiley
Skillfully adapted by April De Angelis from the Matt Haig memoir of the same name, Reasons to Stay Alive tells the story of an author’s battle with anxiety and depression. In a nod to the book, the play is framed as a conversation between two actors playing an older and a younger version of Matt – the younger (Mike Noble) in the midst of a depressive episode, the older (Phil Cheadle) like a blunt, Northern guardian angel here to deliver the message: it gets better.
A quote by Haruki Murakami seems the most potent of the many wise snippets cited during the show: “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over … When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
That’s what this play is all about too.
Mike Noble’s performance is brilliantly hard-hitting – he makes the pain of depression seem as real and life-threatening as a shot wound. His writhing, buckling and panting are so convincing even those who ‘don’t believe’ in mental illness would struggle not to empathise.
The set, designed by Simon Daw, is a complicated structure that resembles a fragmented cerebrum. It becomes an Ibiza cliffside where Young Matt first threatens to jump. While old Matt lazes easily on the supporting wooden frame, young Matt climbs and slips and grabs desperately, a physical manifestation of the difference a few years make.
The emotional pinnacle is near the end, when there’s a role reversal. Young Matt is doing better, twirling round with his girlfriend (played beautifully by Janet Etuk), his support system throughout. But tormented by anxiety that his new book will be a flop, Old Matt becomes the one saying I can’t do this, it’s not worth it. (That book, of course, is Reasons to Stay Alive. We want to reach out and reassure him – it becomes a bestseller. It becomes a play. It helps millions of people.)
Young Matt repeats back to his future self a list of reasons: you will kiss, you will laugh, you will dance, “you will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys”. You realise this is what life is ‘after’ depression; both Matts helping each other, the lessons constantly being reused and recycled; the reasons-to-live list forgotten, re-needed, repeated.
The message is entirely relatable. It’s fantastic to see a show teach that recovery is rarely linear and relapse is almost inevitable – but that you’re never alone in getting through it.
Where the play falls down is in trying to maintain Matt Haig’s sporadic, fractured narrative style. The slapdash mix of lists, one-sentence chapters, elongated flashbacks, celebrity quotes and double-sided conversations works well on-page; on stage, you’re left feeling faintly disappointed by a series of never-fully-fleshed out scenes.
However, sniffles rippled around the theatre when the actors recited Tweets from readers, thanking Matt for his work and sharing their own reasons to stay alive. This was a perfect, fitting end, and a brilliant keepsake from the original text.
At one point, older Matt tells his younger self, recovery is not one quick fight but “a thousand tiny battles”, and it’s a message that the audience keeps with them. An audience member summed it perfectly when leaving the theatre: “that needs to be shown everywhere, that does.”
Runs until Saturday 16 November | Image: Johan Persson