Image Credit: Phil Cheadle and Mike Noble in Reasons to Stay Alive. Photo by Johan Persson.
Lists of things to do, lists of things to buy, lists of things to remember. Lists for the day, for the week or for the month. Lists, in all their various forms, make up our lives.
I have just come home from going to see Reasons to Stay Alive at the York Theatre Royal, and my first thought as I stepped through my door was of course of a list. Or, more accurately, of an item on a list. I have been meaning to buy milk for the past two days now and no matter how many times I scribble it down on to pieces of paper or write in to the notes on my phone, I keep forgetting.
It’s annoying, but not the end of the world. I’ll write another list; I’ll try again tomorrow and in the mean time I’ll continue stealing my housemates’. This list-making as a method of essentially micromanaging my life, is something I generally take for granted. But after watching the performance this evening, I’m beginning to wonder whether my ability to make lists is in fact a privilege.
For what happens when you can’t do the things on your lists? When you can’t write the lists in the first place? When the only thing you can think to make a list of are your reasons to stay alive. When they’re looking pretty thin on the ground, but it’s all that matters because suddenly your life is no longer about the things you need to do or the shopping you need to buy. In that moment, it’s about stopping yourself from taking one more step, off the edge of a cliff.
That is what happened to Matt Haig, when he was just 24 years old. Living in Ibiza with his girlfriend at the time, Matt thought he should be having the time of his life. But in reality, Matt was clinically depressed, living with a voice inside his head telling him the pain he was feeling wasn’t worth it. Matt stood on the edge of a cliff looking down at the rocks and sea beneath him, trying to think of reasons to stay alive.
Matt didn’t kill himself. He went back to his villa and soon after that back home to England, where he continued his battle with depression. He is now 44 and no longer at the crisis point he was then. Back in 2015, Matt Haig wrote a book, part memoir, part self-help book about his experience with his mental health and he titled it *Reasons to Stay Alive. *
This same book has now been re-imagined for the stage by Jonathan Watkins, being turned in to a 1 hour and 20-minute performance with a cast of just six actors. The play begins in the same way the book does, with that scene in Ibiza and a dialogue begins between a younger Matt stood on the cliff and an older Matt speaking to him.
This dialogue continues throughout the play, with the performance mimicking the book’s fairly unusual format of going off on tangents with odd memories, stories, lists of ideas and quotes from famous authors. From this, there is a feeling for those in the audience of almost following a stream of consciousness.
In the beginning, this structure was perhaps a little hard to grasp. There was some experimental dance that seemed out of place and the dialogue between older and younger Matt didn’t quite sit comfortably. But as the performance went on and this deliberate style became more apparent, it was easy to settle into.
Despite covering such hard-hitting topics, with some scenes being difficult to watch seeing the agony this man was feeling and the helplessness of those around him. There were welcome moments of gentle humour to provide some light relief. In fact, when leaving the theatre, I didn’t feel flat like I thought I might, but in fact optimistic.
There is a seen in the play, that Matt also writes about in the book where in the midst of his depression, no longer working and living with his parents, he needs to go to the corner shop for some milk. Yet, despite having walked to this shop a thousand times in his life before, this is a task of mammoth proportions and it is on that walk to the shop that he experiences his first panic attack. This simple, everyday experience that would once have come so easily to him, now feels impossible.
And so, as I sit here drinking my tea made with this misappropriated milk, I am not annoyed that my memory has failed me yet again but instead thankful. Thankful that forgetting to buy milk again does not feel like the end of the world. That I am fortunate enough that I will be able to walk to the corner shop tomorrow without such distress. That I can write lists of things to do and leave the house and do them. But more importantly, I am thankful that there are plays like this one, books like this one, where people who have suffered so greatly have documented their experiences, giving even a little hope that there is a way out of such pain that there are reasons to stay alive.