I am nothing if not a Matt Haig fangirl. I’ve read everything he’s ever written for public consumption and, if I’m completely honest, his books, particularly Reasons to Stay Alive, have helped me navigate the trickier parts of life. So when I heard that this much-loved book had been adapted for stage, it was with both trepidation and excitement that I headed to Manchester’s HOME for a gander.
I needn’t have worried. I’m enthralled and delighted by the entire one hour and 17 minutes, and the stage show reaffirms my love for Haig and theatre in general.
There’s something cathartic about hearing the words that mean so much to you, that resonated so deeply at a time in your life when not much else made sense, spoken aloud. There are even times when I notice that I’m crying. But they’re not sad tears, they’re relief, recollection and a sort of weird joy. At a time when people’s ability to come together with an air of hopefulness is doubtful, you only need look around the auditorium and watch people’s faces to realise that this play (and the book on which it’s based) is magnificent.
Adapting a best-selling account of a 20-something’s internal battle with mental health is no mean feat, yet English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres do it extremely well. It’s funny, moving and clever, all of which has a lot to do with choreographer Jonathan Watkins being in the director’s seat. Bringing depression to life is tricky but Watkins manages to do so vividly in the tormented movements of Younger Matt, played by Mike Noble. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a panic attack (I’m sincerely hoping you haven’t because, well, they’re a bitch) but this production comes close to capturing the sheer suffocation, fear and pain they cause. Noble’s face contorts, his body jerks and he moves slowly from one stance to another.
While others have noted that the decision to stage the book with Older Matt (Phil Cheadle) guiding Younger Matt through the early years of depression is surprising (although they’ve all commented that it works incredibly well), it makes perfect sense to me. I have read the book countless times and always imagined Haig was writing for himself, maybe his younger self, as well as for the reader.
Haig likes to make lists (a technique he uses to aid his recovery) and these are rife throughout the book. I wondered how these would translate to stage, but the cast always seem to have an inventive solution up their sleeve – my favourite being the ridiculously unhelpful things said to people with depression (“pull yourself together”) and occasions that have generated more sympathy in his life than depression (including a broken toe and living in Hull).
It might be possible to overlook the supporting cast but that would be a mistake. Janet Etuk is utterly believable as Haig’s girlfriend (and later wife) Andrea. Initially the focus is on Younger Matt and Etuk is left on the sidelines (I’m not sure if this was deliberate but it adds to the feeling of suffocation and isolation), but there are several moments where Etuk comes into her own. The repetition of “take nothing personally” in the list of advice she gives for supporting someone with mental health issues is telling, and the subtle utterances of love and invitations to “take my hand” are heart-warming.
Cheadle is excellent as Older Matt, a kind of guardian angel, who plays the role with wisdom, warmth and a healthy dose of humour. He serves as a reminder of hope and optimism, reeling off reasons to stay alive such as music, love, sunsets, beaches, dogs and, of course, books. He also serves as a stark reminder that the path ahead will not be free from obstacles – but that it’s OK.
After the show, I wait by the box office for my pal and overhear a group of women chatting about the play. “I would have loved them to have received a standing ovation,” says one as she pulls on her bobble hat. “The acting was phenomenal,” adds another and I couldn’t agree more. As I sat and clapped along with the rest of the audience, I wanted to stand up and cheer. But ever the anxious girl, I didn’t want to look like a wally when everyone else was sat down.
Reasons to Stay Alive is one of the most beautiful, moving, smart pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long while. So, if you’re a fan of Haig’s words, or just fancy seeing something important and life-affirming when the world outside seems to be going a bit wonky, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Main image: Phil Cheadle in Reasons to Stay Alive. Photo by Johan Persson.
Reasons to Stay Alive is on at HOME in Manchester until November 2, 2019. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.