3:58 PM 6th November 2019
Reasons To Stay Alive
The Company of Reasons to Stay Alive - photo by Johan Persson
Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive was a runaway semi-autobiographical bestseller, in 2015, that captures the moment that depression became socially acceptable and the genuine terror of it much more clearly understood - but could it cross over with the same success to the stage? After all it is an axiom of theatre that trying to depict boredom is very likely going to be boring. How to show depression without depressing the audience?
April De Angelis’s text, directed by Jonathan Watkins, for Sheffield Theatres and English Touring Theatre - currently being performed at York Theatre Royal - has succeeded resoundingly, not least using the extended conceit of the central character and central consciousness, the younger and the older versions, having a dialogue with each other - and of their mind with itself.
Phil Cheadle and Mike Noble in Reasons to Stay Alive - photo by Johan Persson
Matt (Mike Noble) is the young man battling to overcome anxiety in all its many cruel forms, panic attacks, acute lethargy, alienation and anomie, suicidal thoughts even, aided by Andrea (Janet Etuk), his ‘rock’, whom he later marries. He is watched over by his older alter ago (Phil Cheadle), the cured version, ever at hand to soothe and massage, rally and revitalise and, where necessary, to chivvy and chide. Those demons have to be beaten one way or another.
One of the ways is through music, another through a love of literature and, most potently, by moving beyond reading to writing, putting into concrete form the pain and the antidotes. This does seem a tad too simplistic at times and, personally, I was slightly irked by the welter of sound bites from famous fellow sufferers, psychologists, writers and gurus, all of which were used to underpin a slightly facile message that you can beat this if you really, really try and have confidence. On one occasion there was an endless list, set to some kind of chant, of those like Churchill who had suffered the black dog.
Similarly, the play relied far too much for my money on semiotics. Was it really essential to give it the appearance of being chopped into sections, each heralded – like one of those dreadful presentations - by a printed sign of one sort another. We are back to the first thing they tell budding writers: you’ve got to show, demonstrate, evoke - not state.
There did seem to be too much unnecessary assertion of message, unnecessary and out of keeping with physical theatre as this is, but overall the play succeeded extremely well in adapting the book and taking us to the dark nerve centre of the mental illness. Indeed, Simon Daw’s memorable design, sparse but boldy haunting, locates us in the very skull of the protagonist.
Dilek Rose, Chris Donnelly and Connie Walker do sterling work in a variety of roles as those who support Matt on a journey, which we sense he’ll be on all his life, negotiating his way through the occasional slough of despond, even though he has seen the sunlit uplands.
Reasons To Stay Alive is at York Theatre Royal until 9th November.