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Theatre Review Reasons to Stay Alive, Bristol Old Vic

Stylish and often amusing exploration of one man's battle with depression

MATT HAIG’S best-selling book gets an assured adaptation for the stage by April De Angelis in this production, during which The Older Matt (Phil Cheadle) acts as commentator, calmly taking us through the Younger Matt’s darkest days and gradual emergence from suicidal thoughts and hopelessness.

 

As the physical incarnation of the voice in his younger self’s head, he’s able to supply the insight to continue living that friends and family cannot.

 

Mike Noble’s engaging performance as Matt is never maudlin, despite his character being enveloped by anxiety and the shifts in tone, style and rhythm prevent the role from becoming depressingly predictable and thus self-defeating as a theatre piece.

 

Janet Etuk as his long-suffering girlfriend Andrea is effectively low-key, as are Connie Walker and Chris Donnelly as his awkwardly supportive parents. Their muted performances allow Matt’s chaotic, emotional jumble to dominate the stage without undervaluing their role in his recovery.

 

Simon Daw’s multi-level and contorted metal set, resembling a shattered heart spiked with needles, opens up for the episodic action to take place inside. Scenes of the personal story are interposed with quirky practical advice such as what people say to depressives that they do not say in other life-threatening situations.

 

Atmospheric, expressionist lighting by Jessica Hung Yun and Alex Baranowski’s pulsing music create both dreamlike and nightmarish effects and, along with the stylised movement, generate an introspective and surreal world that accentuates Matt’s distorted reality.

 

Moments of striking inventiveness, such as the writers’ words of apposite wisdom appearing on the spikes of the set, are integrated with naturalistic moments of intense emotional pain and mundane activities viewed through Matt’s distorted perspective.

 

Director Jonathan Watkins has created a unique piece of drama, whose changes in pace and style echo the fragmented world of many depressives without ever allowing it to wallow in their suffering.

 

Matt Haig makes a point of saying that his is a very personal story but that he hopes it can offer some practical advice and this production remains true to his intention.

 

Runs until October 5, then tours, box office: bristololdvic.org.uk

 

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