Find the reason

Reasons to stay alive at Studio Theatre, Sheffield, reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne.

Reasons to stay alive include music, books, and running. But before protagonist Matt (Mike Noble) reaches this conclusion, we witness a near-suicide attempt followed by a long period of all-encompassing depression. Nails the size of knitting needles protrude ominously from the back wall as Matt tries to get through this dark period with the help of his partner Andrea (Janet Etuk). Help also comes in the form of older Matt (Phil Cheadle), who appears in younger Matt’s mind, looking on as the scenes unfold, and encouraging Matt to go on living.

Older Matt is also there to assist the audience. He gives information about experiencing depression, explaining what it’s like to have a panic attack, and the little sympathy people offer to a depressed person – Matt’s had more sympathy for living in Hull than for his debilitating depression. Medication doesn’t work for Matt, and he doesn’t seem to seek any other form of therapy. Every day is a challenge, and for a while it seems that the bad times will never end.

Matt discovers running. When you run your heart beats fast and you sweat – mimicking the effects of the panic attacks that Matt suffers. When Matt runs he doesn’t have to worry about why he’s experiencing those symptoms.

Matt and Andrea move in with Matt’s parents (Connie Walker and Chris Donnelly) during this difficult time, and things slowly start to turn around for Matt when he manages to get to the shop to buy milk and marmite. When he and Andrea eventually leave the parental home to live alone, it is the stories and journeys found in books that give Matt the ability to survive each day. Books are placed on the ends of some of the large nails on the back wall, demonstrating the slightly less precarious nature of Matt’s situation now.

Andrea is amazingly supportive throughout. For the most part, Matt’s parents are supportive too, although at one point his dad suggests that even though you’re not supposed to say this anymore, acting like a man and not crying might be helpful. Later, we are given a list of ‘crap things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life threatening situations’. The list doesn’t include his dad’s comments, but it certainly could have done. Instead it includes, ‘it could be worse, at least no-one’s died’, ‘try living with someone who has got it’, ‘I get that all the time’, and ‘mind over matter’.

The regular breaking of the fourth wall makes this a more educational experience than a typical play. These opportunities are used to emphasise that depression is not a choice and can have horrific consequences. While there are no perfect or healing words to say to someone with depression, Andrea shows that just being there, helping Matt to breathe, and gently encouraging him are at least actions that won’t hurt.

Scenes are punctuated by music, lighting, shifting set, and dance and movement from the characters (including final cast member Dilek Rose). These aspects help to convey the changing emotions of Matt and his family. The nails not holding books remain in the background; a reminder that even when things are improving, the threat of depression looms.

The play, adapted from Matt Haig’s book and based on his own life, captures the sometimes inexplicable nature of mental illness. Matt has a loving family and there is no obvious cause of his depression and anxiety. Even when Matt becomes a successful author he is overcome with anxiety.

Older Matt reassures younger Matt that ‘the storm ends’. While this is true, the storm also returns. Nonetheless, the play shows that living through those storms is worth it for all that life has to offer.

We met Matt in our August 2018 issue.

On tour until 16 November 2019

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