Matt Haigh's 'Reasons to Stay Alive' at Northern Stage

Lauren Sneath reviews the heartbreaking yet heartwarming dramatisation of Matt Haigh's 2015 book

Lauren Sneath
25th October 2019
image: instagram via @northern_stage
Having read the hybrid work ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ by Matt Haig, which shivers and twists between autobiography, self-help book and compilation of lists (it works, I promise) I felt well prepared for what would inevitably be an emotional rollercoaster of a show. You can see it in the name: a protagonist searching for reasons to stay alive, drawn over an hour and 20 minutes with no interval and a small, intimate cast - a predictably intense experience. I wasn’t wrong about that.

The show uses a set designed to look like a giant brain, with mobile pieces to pen and close the structure, as well as ladders and berths upon which the characters perched during different phases. The narrative, following loosely the structure of the book, follows a young Matt (Mike Noble) through his emotional breakdown at the age of 24, all the way up to the release of the book itself in 2015. An older Matt, played by Phil Cheadle, offers sage advice and occasional respite from his younger counterpart’s panic attacks and darker moments. This device was both creative and useful - both actors interacted in a clever, mature way and used older Matt’s wisdom and Dumbledore-esque attitude to balance out younger Matt’s much more neurotic behaviour. What struck me as most instructive, however, was the turntable moment where older Matt was sent into a tailspin, right before the publishing of his new book. Here, it was really hammered home that depression is not a phase, not a one-time issue, not able to be completely eradicated with medication or even time. 

The show was a riot of emotion, undeniably personal yet encouraging, and perhaps unintentionally instructive.

This book’s aim is not to instruct the public the there is one way to deal with depression, but to offer one sufferer’s perspective and to provide optional tactics to combat many facets of the illness, from panic attacks to unsympathetic responses, and even discusses how a person in a position of care for someone who is depressed could act. Janet Etuk, who plays Andrea (Matt’s girlfriend and eventual wife) is impetuous and empathetic in equal measure, showing constancy in the face of Matt’s often erratic behaviour and always providing a shoulder, a leg up, a pep talk or sometimes a dressing down. 

The show was a riot of emotion, undeniably personal yet encouraging, and perhaps unintentionally instructive. I very much enjoyed it, learned a lot, and will view the concept of depression very differently after having been educated by ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’. 

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