Review: Reasons To Stay Alive at York Theatre Royal

I know that one in five people will experience mental health issues in their lives and after seeing tonight’s production I have begun to understand the horror of this condition. Matt Haig, the author, suffered from severe depression, anxiety, suicidal urges and panic attacks and he wrote a self-help book to assist others in their search for a functional existence. I haven’t read this manual so I came to the play with an open mind.

By Angie Millard

Feature photo by Johan Persson

By using two versions of himself, the young Matt and the older self, he is able to reflect and evaluate some of the very painful experiences and manages to infuse this with humour and, at times, joy. This is a difficult job and, by using a choreographer as director, the play explores the issues by using physical theatre and metaphor. For example the cast recite the names of famous people who have suffered from depression while running on the spot, neatly incorporating the physical activity which Haig used to help him.

The set consisted of three curved screens which suggested the cranium and contained much of the action. When the protagonist takes a walk to the shop, these open to reveal a complex climbing frame to demonstrate the super human effort this simple act requires. The party scene in Ibiza, where his problems begin, is shown by filling the stage with the cast and clever use of slow-mo and normal paced movement shows the disorientation of Matt’s crippling illness.

Written signs are used to connect the audience with the action and reinforce the messages contained in the play. ‘Things people say’ is one such or ‘keeping a bank of bad days’ is another. As Haig says: ‘Minds are unique. They go wrong in unique ways’, so the play endeavours to tread a general path and, by speaking of his own experiences, Haig hopes to give comfort to others.

Janet Etuk manages the role of wife/partner with sensitive use of firmness and humour. Chris Donnelly as father and Connie Walker as mother play out the concern and confusion parents feel when they cannot help or remedy their child’s condition. The older Matt played by Phil Cheadle offers a frame and his comments, with the wisdom of hindsight, are at times heartbreaking.

I feel that the production works for the audience and is different from the written word so I’m not making any direct comparisons but as Haig says: ‘With profound pain comes profound joy… words help us leave a mind and give us the building blocks to build another’.

I felt intense sympathy and sadness when watching the play but what has stayed with me is an insight into the loneliness of the condition and the isolation sufferers live with daily. I hope I shall remember this for the future but worry about those who never find peace.

Reasons To Stay Alive will be performed at York Theatre Royal until 9 November 2019. The Director is Jonathan Watkins, set designer is Simon Daw, Lighting is by Jessica Hung Hanyun and play text by April De Angelis. The Production is by the English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres.