Review: Reasons
to Stay Alive

Matt Haig's bestselling 2015 memoir about his battle with depression is brought to the stage

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Matt Haig’s unconventional memoir Reasons to Stay Alive is a frank exploration of his battle with depression, bringing together fragments of memory and imagined conversations between an older and younger Haig, scattered with dark humour and brutal honesty. Now that work, and so Haig’s life, has been brought to the stage for the first time. Billed as a play with music and movement, it’s been directed by Jonathan Watkins, whose previous credits include the dance adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 for the Northern Ballet, with text written by April De Angelis.

The play starts when Haig is in his early twenties, living and working in Ibiza. There he experiences his first violent and terrifying bout of anxiety and depression, an experience so intense it almost leads him to throw himself from a clifftop. Luckily, an older version of Haig is there to talk him down and reassure him that one day he will recover. What follows is a brisk, narratively linear study of Haig’s plunge into the depths of depression and then his recovery, up to and beyond the point when he writes his first book.

It’s a great looking play, with some excellent lighting landing on a shattered set that’s reminiscent of a mind blown into three. At times it becomes an intimidating wall that closes in on Haig, something which must be climbed and conquered.

Mike Noble gives a great performance as the tortured young Haig, expressing just the right amount of despair without ever tipping into melodrama. Janet Etuk, playing Haig’s supportive partner Andrea, also excels. Their relationship is clearly key to Haig’s recovery and it makes you wonder about those who experience such distress when they don’t have the kind of support network Haig clearly had.

Some distracting theatrics get in the way of the drama

It can’t have been easy adapting such brave and imaginatively rich source material into a play, especially given the narratively scattered, fragmented natured of the memoir itself. And while this play tells us something about Haig’s life and his illness, it never gets into his head the way his own writing so eloquently does. Indeed, while some of the lines have been lifted from the book directly, they sometimes seem out of context and lost here: insights become trite platitudes and the humour, especially the “oh, it’s grim up north” stuff, is sometimes off key. Haig’s true voice is distinctly absent, a lack all the more noticeable because it is so vividly present in his own writing.

And while the performances are strong, some distracting theatrics get in the way of the drama. Haig’s original book is punctuated with various lists, for example, exploring topics such as “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations”. These lists have been transposed into the play, punctuating the action. At one point, Andrea is reciting one such list, about caring for people with depression. She’s surrounded by the other cast members who support her, passing her around the circle after every phrase and at one point lifting her up. It’s reminiscent of an actors’ game of trust played in rehearsals or a theatre in education performance for college students. For me, it just didn’t quite work.

Still, this is a fine enough play in its own right and a welcome exploration and discussion of mental health, and the ongoing recovery that hopefully follows a breakdown. I left the show wanting to return to Haig’s work, and anything that spreads the word about the work of this brilliant author can be no bad thing.

Reasons to Stay Alive is on at Home, Manchester until 2 November and then goes on to York Theatre Royal (5-9 Nov) and Leeds Playhouse (12-16 Nov)

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