For the next few days you can catch English Touring Theatre‘s latest production ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ at Newcastle’s Northern Stage before the tour continues to Manchester. The production is an adaptation of Matt Haig’s bestseller which takes a journey through the depths of his depression and out to the other side.
It doesn’t sound like the most exciting or fun of nights out and, indeed, the stage is a sombre set seemingly representing the broken eggshell of the mind; the music is atonal and, at times, harsh; and there is a great deal of presenting, as much as it is possible, the agony of depression when it grips you at its worst. Fun indeed.
But somehow Matt Haig brings joy, lightness and, above all, hope into everything he does. The superb adaptation by April De Angelis and direction by Jonathan Watkins have clearly done the job of staying true to the spirit of Haig’s story and personality, so the production shines all the more brightly out of the darkness portrayed. This is a show where I saw teenagers as well as retired folk in the audience and somehow that seemed perfect. There is swearing but otherwise all ages can come to this show and take something from it.
The presentation on stage is rather novel. A young Matt Haig (Mike Noble) contemplates suicide but is stopped by an older version of himself (Phil Cheadle). They interact throughout the story with surprising twists and turns along the way. It’s typical of how Matt Haig really thinks. Having just finished his novel ‘The Humans’, where an alien assumes the identity of a British academic and finds the species isn’t quite what he was expecting, I see how this author looks at life from very different angles and provides insight which can make us all stop and think. Despite the fantastical nature of these plots though, Haig always keeps it real and relevant (and at times even funny – watch out for the demon).
Noble and Cheadle are both incredibly realistic in their portrayal and they are supported by an equally believable supporting cast. But the one who stands out most isn’t an actor as such but a character. Andrea (Janet Etuk), the girlfriend – eventually, wife – who supports Haig from beginning to end comes across as an outstanding human being. While one can read between the lines and appreciate that not all of it was plain sailing or easy and that the couple had their rough patches, it is clear how much Matt Haig adores this woman and how much she loved him through these dark episodes (which Haig openly admits are not over even now, though he is more in control of them when they occur). This is, in fact, a key aspect to his writing: the care and love of others which supports us all. Matt Haig is a lucky man, and he knows it.
Speaking personally, I’ve been where Matt Haig was and have twice had times where what I call ‘the black dog’ has taken over my life (and as we so graphically see in the play, it never goes away entirely): The first time, when I was a teenager, the second just after returning to the UK after many years doing voluntary work in Bangladesh. While Haig’s experiences were not necessarily the same as mine (there’s no ‘right way’ to do depression Haig notes in his book), most of what I saw on the stage resonated deeply, none more so than the importance of that support of others. I was lucky that my reasons for staying alive were many and I can name them all with love, but I know there are those who don’t know this yet for themselves. It may seem strange, but there’s worse you can do than recommend such people come and see this play for themselves; it is therapeutic and might just be that ‘voice from the future’ they need to hear. This isn’t just a play really – it’s missionary outreach. Haig’s message, ultimately, is simple: Be brave, stay alive – it will get better.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.