The pleasure I have found through reviewing is being able to articulate my feelings about something by writing them down. Matt Haig had the same idea with ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, although our readership numbers are slightly different. Jonathan Watkins’ play adaptation at York Theatre Royal offered what I was expecting. This sounds a bit downbeat but in fact I enjoyed the interpretation.
The staging resembled a brain, highlighting beautifully the complexity of our brains and how we still know so little about what goes on inside them. Poignant to the fact that not all coping strategies work for everyone, it is so individual. The staging was manipulated to expand and condense, showing the changing nature of how we feel. The set acted as a safety net, a climbing frame and a barrier to all the things whirring around in Matt’s head. The direction involved a lot of physicality and gesture as a way of showing collective movement or the passage of time. This worked well as it showed how the simplest actions can feel heavy on a person, however it did become a little repetitive at times.
A focal part of the play for me, was how those around ‘Young Matt’, played by Mike Noble, reacted to his depression and anxiety. For his parents it was the inability to even talk about the elephant in the room. ‘Andrea’, played by Janet Etuk, radiated love for Matt and her unyielding support for him felt close to home and what I have experienced for someone I love deeply. The majority of the actors multi-roled, providing much needed comedy; without such I would have left feeling a little heavy. I laughed in exactly the same places as I did when reading the book. Even the jibs at my home city of Hull gaining more sympathy as a place to live than depression – which to a certain extent is true. This highlighted so well that with pain comes joy, and these moments of joy felt like gold dust to the audience as we were living through Matt’s pain. The presence of ‘Older Matt’, played by Phil Cheadle, also gave hope. Hope that things do change for the better, not everything is rosy all the time but there is a future for him.
I also cried. A lot. However, only afterwards when I really took the play in. I’ve found crying out of nowhere in York station can be alarming to other passengers, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. Plays that stay with you and perhaps teach you something about yourself, in a way demand an emotive response.
‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ is a prime example of how society is not always sympathetic to those suffering from mental illness, and it is an illness. We see the Instagram quotes that tell us about the light over the rainbow. The politicians pledging that they alone will provide the funding and support needed in the health system to help people. And yet there seems to be an overwhelming silence when people ask why it is happening to them? No one quite knows. There are claims and theories but no clear-cut answers. Matt Haig’s words do not claim to provide either, but they do give a glimmer of hope and a feeling of not being alone. I learnt a lot when reading ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ about empathy, and these lessons were reiterated to me as I watched the play. Listen. Be patient. Above all, show kindness. A multitude of things will be happening to someone at the same time. Sometimes it is easy to cope with them, and sometimes it’s not. However, there will continuously be reasons to stay alive.
It moves on to Leeds Playhouse next after York Theatre Royal.