MATT HAIG’S mental health memoir Reasons To Stay Alive has a new life as a play, playing York Theatre Royal in his former home city from Tuesday.

Haig, who lived in York for seven years before he and his young family moved to Brighton, says of the Sheffield Theatres and English Touring Theatre show: “It’s wonderful to see a book take on other life forms, especially one as exciting and radically different as this one.

“I think this production will provide a fascinating way to look at depression and mental health. I’m so pleased it’s happening.”

Reasons To Stay Alive is the true story of how Matt’s world collapsed under the weight of depression in Ibiza at the age of 24, charting his journey out of crisis, from darkness into light, in an uplifting exploration of living and loving better.

That story is “imagined for the stage” with music by Alex Baranowski and movement by choreographer Jonathan Watkins, whose direction fuses physical theatre to a text by playwright April de Angelis in the first theatrical adaptation of an Haig book.

Haig’s memoir takes the form of an open letter to his younger, anxiety ridden and suicidal self, and de Angelis builds her script around Older Matt’s conversations across time with Younger Matt, played respectively by Phil Cheadle and Mike Noble in the 75-minute play.

Cheadle was unaware of Haig’s York past. “That’s actually news to me,” he says. “That’s given it an extra edge for next week’s performances and hopefully will help with the play’s popularity.”

Calling the show “an extraordinary piece of theatre,” he says: “It’s quite unique, because the book is so popular and has helped people with mental health problems, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that when people come up to me afterwards, they don’t talk about the play or our performance, but to say thank you.

“I’ve shared so many experiences since we opened at the Sheffield Crucible in August, with people opening up to a stranger about their own story. The knock-on effect is that the majority of people know someone, in their family or a friend, who has suffered depression.

“The book is a like a guide-book to coping with it, but it’s also about dealing with life in a wider sense, and I think people will enjoy the play, whether they do or don’t have mental problems.”

Director Jonathan Watkins is a dancer and choreographer by training, who usually works without text, but this was a different challenge.

“He first had the idea about two years ago of putting Matt’s story on stage, and April provided a really great text framework to go with his experience as a choreographer,” says Cheadle. “From that, we devised the piece in rehearsal, when sometimes what Jonathan described was beyond words, more a visual language.”

Cheadle is at Matt Haig’s stage in life when he was writing Reasons To Stay Alive to the Younger Matt, and he reflects on the mental stresses that actors face in the quest for work. “Actors, for the majority, have to deal with chronic unemployment constantly, which is also one of the biggest contributors to mental health problems,” he says.

“I try to see it like I have two tanks: one is the financial tank, the other is the artistic one, and I need to find ways of topping up both to keep afloat, but why we stay in this game is we’ve spent our life trying to fulfil the artistic side when the industry can be brutal, but we love story-telling.”

Mike Noble, the play’s Young Matt, had been given a copy of Matt Haig’s book when working on another play centred on mental health, Kendall Feaver’s The Almighty Sometimes, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, early last year.

“Then, when Jonathan got in touch about doing Reasons To Stay Alive, I devoured it one reading,” he recalls.

Noble is completing a hattrick of performances in plays rooted in mental health, having appeared in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

“I can definitely see a connection between that play and this one, in the movement and the feelings expressed, and, for me, the similarity between the two is that we want to show the audience the experience of autism or depression through the way they see the world,” he says.

“People who have experienced depression can connect with Matt’s story and those who haven’t may leave the theatre with more understanding and patience.”

Putting the three plays together, Noble says: “I feel very privileged to be able to tell stories that I really connect with, and it’s important to feel you’re sharing a story that’s not often told. It’s time those stories were heard.

“It’s not too far of a stretch to say that we’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, where suicide rates went up last year, and the world we’re creating for ourselves is not helping that. It doesn’t surprise me that we’re having these issues.”

Like Cheadle, he knows he must deal with the uncertainties of the acting profession, one where rejection or criticism is a constant peril. “I think you just have to a thick skin, and that’s a huge strength for me. But that’s why acting is not for everybody, as some can’t cope with that way of working, though I think there’s a real resilience to the human spirit.”

It was time to ask Noble for his best reasons to stay alive. “There’s a board at the show for people to put up Post-It notes with their reasons, and it’s really moving to read them,” he says. “For me, it’s my family and friends and all the people I’m yet to meet.”

English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres present Reasons To Stay Alive, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Charles Hutchinson