Last night I went to the second in a short season of plays at Leeds Playhouse concerned with men’s mental health and wellbeing. It is called Reasons To Stay Alive and is based on the best selling book of the same name by Matt Haig which tells of his struggle with depression. The book has been ‘imagined for the stage’ and directed by Jonathan Watkins with the text being written by April De Angelis.
The first thing to say is that this is a very dark play with only the odd flash of humour and not only shows the effect that depression has had on the writer but also on his family and friends, especially his parents and partner. As with any sensitive condition it is difficult for others to know what to say for the best and this usually ends in their making things worse.
The structure of the piece is interesting in that it involves the older Matt Haig, played by Phil Cheadle, having a conversation with the young version of himself (Mike Noble) who is in the depths of his first episode of depression. The action takes place in a set which is a large structure in the shape of a brain and opens up at the front to reveal a series of spikes within. The two versions of Matt climb the structure and position themselves within it whilst the conversation takes place. They are joined by Andrea, Janet Etuk, who is the younger Matt’s girlfriend and has to put up with his irrational behaviour and abuse, which is how depression manifests itself among sufferers. His parents, played by Chris Donnelly and Connie Walker become very protective and concerned but are unable to identify with their son’s predicament thus contributing to his dilemma. The final member of the cast, all of whom were absolutely brilliant, is Dilek Rose who takes the multiple roles of Dawn/Jennie and Denise. She turns out to be one of the causes of Matt’s low self-esteem when, during their school days, she says that she won’t go out with him because of a mole on his face which makes him look hideous in her eyes. She later appears as a demon who is not of the threatening kind but is an erotic version who is seducing Matt into depression. This was very effective as it is easier to fight against an enemy trying to harm you than one which is seductive.
The first part of the play I found to be very good in dealing with the onset of the breakdown but I thought that it lost its way a bit by the use of slogans which, although I haven’t read the book, would seem to be sections of it. It was more like a column in a Sunday newspaper with banners and placards proclaiming interludes such as ’Things not to say to a sufferer of depression’, or something like that – it is difficult to make notes in the dark – which was then followed by a string of phrases deemed to be unhelpful. It was not a bad idea and obviously of use to non-sufferers. I did think that a couple of things that the older Matt had said to the young Matt earlier could have been added to the list such as ‘I have been there and know how it feels’, or ‘Believe me, it will get better’. A depression sufferer doesn’t care about that, they are only concerned about their own mindset, no one else’s. I know this from first hand experience but have no intention of saying anything further on the subject, not like me, I know.
I was also disappointed about the phase towards the end of the play when everyone was speaking in quotes from authors and books concerning depression. The books would then be hung from the spikes in the brain’s interior. I understand the symbolism of filling your head with positive messages and I can see how this might be of use in getting to the younger end of the audience who, because of social media, tend to live by soundbites and slogans, but I found it irritating.
The main message of the play is that mental health problems, even if they share a name, are never the same in any two people. I was left wondering what the point was, therefore, in committing the experience to print in this way, as those in the depths of despair are not likely to resort to a book or, even less likely, go to a play. There is an extract from the source book in the programme which says that reading about other people who have suffered made the author feel comforted and given him hope. That is brilliant and I am glad that it worked for him but I have found that those who manage to live with what Churchill called his Black Dog, are the ones who find the solution within themselves and learn to dodge the bullet when they hear distant gunfire.
Behind the ‘brain’ set was a plain white background utilised to good effect by the lighting designer, Jessica Hung Yun in order to cast ominous shadows or black out during the more sombre scenes. Short interludes of music were well utilised and a welcome break from the play’s intensity, so well done to Composer, Alex Baranowski and Music Associate Joss Holden-Rea. Finally, as I have now come to expect at the new Leeds Playhouse, the sound was very good, thanks to Sound Designer Nick Greenhill for taking advantage of this.
Reasons To Stay Alive is well worth a viewing on several levels but, ironically, I think that I would have got more from it had I been a detached observer.
It is an English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres co-production which runs until 16th November.
For Tickets and Information please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/reasons-to-stay-alive/
Feature image Mike Noble photograph by Johan Perrson