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‘Too surreal’ – Matt Haig on the stage play about his suicidal younger self

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The cast of Reasons To Stay Alive in rehearsalsImage copyright
Johan Persson

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The cast of Reasons To Stay Alive in rehearsals

Twenty years ago, Matt Haig walked to the edge of a cliff and wrestled with the question of whether to jump.

This week, he will watch an actor playing him walk to the edge of a (fake) cliff and wrestle with the question of whether to jump. Then he will watch another actor playing an older version of himself talk his younger self out of it.

The prospect of seeing his life story on stage, Haig says, is “exciting, but it’s also very weird”.

And it is his life story.

The play is an adaptation of his book Reasons To Stay Alive – part memoir, part self-help manual – in which he eloquently evoked the crushing depression and suffocating anxiety that overcame him in September 1999. It then recounts how, with the help of his parents and girlfriend Andrea, he slowly got back to something like stability.

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Matt Haig: “We absolutely never know what sort of person we will be in the future”

As Haig puts it, the new play dramatises “the most intense experience of my life and some of the worst days of my life”. The author has had little hands-on involvement in its creation at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre, however.

“I’ve given them a relatively free rein,” he says. “The only thing I said as a caveat at the meeting was, ‘You can do what you want with me and Andrea, but please go gentle on my parents’. I’m totally OK with all the warts and all stuff, but with my parents it’s a bit more awkward.

“I’ve made them promise not to go [and watch] on the same night as me because I think I’d spontaneously combust with awkwardness.”

On that cliff top in Ibiza in 1999, 24-year-old Matt didn’t have the benefit of his older self to tell him that everything would be OK. He was terrified of living, with no prospect – as he saw it – of the pain easing. But he was equally terrified of dying, and leaving his loved ones behind.

If the older Matt really had been able to enter at that point, he could have told his younger self that, after stepping back from the cliff edge, as well as writing about his depression, he would go on to write award-winning novels and children’s books (one of which would be turned into a film by Netflix, and another which would be optioned by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Oh, and he’d marry Andrea. And have a family. And a dog.

What would the young Matt have made of the fact this play is telling his story? “Honestly, any of it would be just almost too surreal to comprehend,” the 44-year-old replies.

“Becoming a published author at that point would have been beyond anything I could have imagined or thought I was capable of. And the fact that I’d be writing about that experience would have been beyond anything I would have understood.

“And also the fact that I was still here. I was in such a desperate state that I didn’t think I’d make it to 25 years old.

“I think there’s a lesson in that for everyone, really, in that we absolutely never know what sort of person we will be in the future. Every single person changes.”

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Johan Persson

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The play opens at Sheffield Crucible on Friday before a UK tour

Reasons To Stay Alive was meant to be a side-project in between Haig’s fiction works, but the chord it struck was so sizeable that the book ended up staying in the UK top 10 for 49 weeks and being published in 29 countries.

“When I was ill, my big thing was that I felt very alone and very misunderstood. And I didn’t even understand myself,” Haig says.

“Back then, there were a lot of very heavy, very academic, quite depressing books about mental illness. But there wasn’t anything that accessible. So I wanted to create something that people could relate to.”

Its candid and beautifully-written insights and tips achieved that. The most difficult part of writing something people could relate to, the author says, was fielding messages from others who were going through similar things, and suddenly discovered someone who understood.

“I was getting contacted a lot by people who were in a very vulnerable states, or ill, and even suicidal,” he says. “And a lot of the time I felt it was something I had to respond to. And I’m not a doctor. I’m not a Samaritan. I didn’t necessarily know what I should or should not be saying. So that was tricky at the start.”

He now has contact details for support organisations on his website, and occasionally tweets them. The play, like the book, will “open a little window” onto depression and anxiety, he hopes.

The script has been written by April De Angelis, and the idea for the play came from director Jonathan Watkins, whose background as a choreographer means he is using movement and music to help express the emotions that dialogue alone might struggle to convey.

“In the book, he says sometimes words weren’t enough,” Watkins says. “I use words when we want to use words, and I want to use movement when words aren’t enough.”

‘Such an important book’

Younger Matt is played by Mike Noble, while older Matt is played by Phil Cheadle, who read the book before taking his audition.

“I was deeply moved,” the actor says. “It struck me that it’s such an important book. And it is not only a book that can be of use to people who live with mental health difficulties, it’s also a book that I think that can resonate on a wider scale, and actually provide a lot of hope to anybody who might be experiencing difficulties. I also had a lot of friends really struggling, so it’s quite personal.”

Suicide is the single biggest killer of males under the age of 45, and despite a greater openness about subjects like depression, helped in part by people like Haig, last week it was revealed that the suicide rate in the UK had risen for the first time since 2013.

Ultimately, Cheadle says he hopes that through telling one person’s story, the play can reach many more.

“Matt’s book shows the warts and all of what it is like to be in the midst of depression or anxiety,” he says. “There’s a lot of lightness in it and humanity. But ultimately, there’s a lot of hope.

“There’s a lot of hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The book does that fantastically well, and I hope our production brings that out.”

If you would like support, you can phone The Samaritans on 116 123 or email

Reasons To Stay Alive runs at Sheffield Crucible from 13-28 September before a UK tour.

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Liam Gallagher on how his feud with Noel upsets their mum

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Former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher has told BBC Radio 5 Live how he thinks his feud with brother Noel upsets their mum.

Speaking to Nihal Arthanayake, he said: “If, God forbid, something happens to my mam, and we haven’t made up by then, then there will be war.”

Click here to listen to the full interview on BBC Sounds.



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Michael Jackson estate calls Leaving Neverland’s Emmy Award a ‘farce’

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Michael Jackson and Wade RobsonImage copyright
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In Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson (pictured) says he was abused by Jackson in the 1990s

Michael Jackson’s estate has called the decision to give Leaving Neverland the Emmy Award for best documentary a “complete farce”.

Leaving Neverland, which first aired in March, focuses on two men who claim the pop superstar abused them as children.

“For a film that is a complete fiction to be honoured in a non-fiction Emmy category is a complete farce,” the estate said in a statement.

It said there was “not one shred of proof” to support the show’s claims.

Leaving Neverland earned a total of five nominations ahead of the weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, and it went on to win outstanding documentary or non-fiction special.

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Director Dan Reed said his film had “launched many important conversations”

The controversial film, directed by Dan Reed, includes interviews with Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were aged seven and 10 when the singer befriended them and their families.

When the Emmy nominations were first announced, Reed said the recognition meant a great deal to all involved.

“Since Leaving Neverland aired in March, it has launched many important conversations about child sexual abuse and the grooming that accompanies it,” he said. “This was why James Safechuck and Wade Robson and their families spoke out, and why we made the documentary.

“We’re delighted that the Academy has honoured that purpose.”

But after the win, the Jackson estate said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter: “Not one shred of proof supports this completely one-sided, so-called documentary which was made in secrecy and for which not one person outside of the two subjects and their families were interviewed.”

After Leaving Neverland’s premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, Jackson’s estate called the project “a tabloid character assassination” and insisted it “isn’t a documentary”.


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Muna: Saving the world, one breath at a time

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MunaImage copyright
Isaac Schneider

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Muna (L-R): Naomi McPherson, Katie Gavin and Josette Maskin

“If you don’t mind, I’m just gonna take a breath.”

Muna’s lead singer, Katie Gavin, is speaking to a packed audience at London’s Village Underground to request a time out.

It’s not because she’s got jet-lag (although she has); or because she’s exhausted from leaping around the stage (she is). Instead, she’s recognised the looming symptoms of an anxiety attack.

Her bandmates Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin rally around and, for the next 60 seconds, they slowly inhale and exhale under the spotlights. The audience joins in, too, transforming the gig into a sort of mass yoga session.

“It felt really good,” Gavin tells the BBC a day later. “I’m glad we did it – breathing is something that’s helped me with my anxiety around singing.”

Her vocal insecurities began when Muna toured their first album, About U, two years ago. Gavin developed “obsessive thinking,” fixating on unconscious mechanisms like breathing and swallowing as panic took hold.

Relaxation techniques helped her tackle the problem – hence the pause in Monday night’s show.

“It felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, except the issue is I don’t want to be out of my body, I want to be there, and breathing is something that helps me re-centre,” she explains.

McPherson, the band’s producer and musical polymath, suggests breathing exercises should henceforth become compulsory at all their gigs.

“I think it’s hard for everyone to stay in the moment at a rock show, especially now with social media and stuff, because you’re filming a lot of it. Taking a breath is like taking a moment to be present,” she says.

“I mean, music is cool, but have you tried breathing?”

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“We’ve had moments of silence at shows before,” says Gavin

The band dissolve into laughter. They laugh a lot, especially when the conversation threatens to get too earnest. But they’re also in stitches as they discuss cult comedy Derry Girls (McPherson does a terrible impersonation of the accent), and Maskin’s morbid fear of zombies.

“I absolutely hate them,” she protests. “I think about when I used to play tag or hide and seek: When the other kids came to get me, I would freeze. So if the zombies came to get me, I’d be rooted to the ground.”

“So you’re actually thinking about your own reflexes,” McPherson teases, “and that’s what scares you the most!”

‘Solidarity in difference’

That self-deprecating humour is present in the title of their second album, Muna Saves The World – simultaneously embracing their role as a queer-identifying, politically-progressive band, while recognising the inherent absurdity of that.

Gavin’s lyrics don’t serve up recipes for world peace, either. Instead she navigates weighty topics like addiction, alienation, romantic desolation and cycles of abusive behaviour.

“It’s called Muna Saves The World but it’s really about saving yourself,” she explains.

Released last week, the album has received rave reviews across the board.

“Muna’s music wonders what pop might sound like if it was made by punks, and what relatability could feel like to people who have always felt different,” wrote NPR’s Catherine Whelan. “It soars and sinks, questions and answers. Like the band who makes it, the music itself seems to find solidarity in difference.”

But the album almost never happened.

The band were still students at the University of Southern California in 2014 when they made their debut album – 12 tracks of empathetic, sinuous synth-pop that eventually caught the ear of floral trouser enthusiast Harry Styles.

The former One Direction star invited Muna to tour Europe with him, amplifying and echoing their messages of tolerance and queer acceptance at every show.

“He’s using us as a way of saying something without actually saying it,” McPherson told the BBC at the time, “which is actually very smart”.

When the tour ended in Milan, Styles gave them Gucci shoes, and they hung around in Italy to take cookery classes before heading back to LA to start their second record. And that’s when things started to go wrong.

‘Second adolescence’

Gavin fell into a long post-tour depression, while her bandmates were forced to move back into Maskin’s parents’ house. The songs weren’t coming together, either. A planned concept album about Joseph Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey, was eventually abandoned.

“It was very emotionally challenging,” remembers McPherson. “I cried a lot.”

“It was hard, really frickin’ hard,” Maskin agrees. “There were points when we thought, ‘Can we do this at all?'”

Eventually, the trio realised they’d rushed into the studio too soon. The first album had changed their lives and they’d formed an inseparable bond but, emotionally, they were the same teenage students who’d recorded About U in McPherson’s bedroom. It was time to grow up.

“It was like a second adolescence kicking in,” says McPherson. “In your mid-20s you have to go through the icky growing pains all over again.”

“I think we all had to separate from each other, so we could better understand ourselves and our position in the group,” adds Maskin.

Gavin sums it up best: “It’s like, if you’ve been in a long-term relationship, eventually you realise that other person can’t be the solution to all your problems.

“You’re like, ‘I’m in love but I still hate myself – what’s up there? I’ve got to go and fix that’. So you’ve still gotta stick up for you, and then show up in the studio with love to give.”

Six months in, a break-through. Driving through California, Gavin came up with a fantastically deadpan lyric: “So I heard the bad news/Nobody likes me and I’m gonna die alone in my bedroom/Looking at strangers on my telephone.”

It became the opening verse of Number One Fan, a throbbing, Robyn-esque dance track, that’s really about battling those destructive inner voices and loving yourself. It is the story of Muna’s crisis of confidence distilled into three minutes.

The rest of the album is just as raw. Stayaway finds Gavin locked in her bedroom, avoiding anything – friends, music, drink – that might tempt her back into the arms of an ex (“every moment is a fork in the road and every road leads back to you,” she sighs).

On Taken, she’s furious with herself for tempting someone into an affair, then furious with them for agreeing to it – because it reminds her of how her father cheated on her mum: “I hate you ’cause you’re just like him.”

The idea of the hero’s journey hasn’t been completely abandoned, either. Gavin opens the album singing: “I want to grow up/I want to put away my childish things/I think that I’m ready”. By the closing track, she’s reached some sort of resolution.

Over six minutes of percolating synths, she documents her life so far – flirting with casual sex and communism, smoking cigarettes, cutting off her hair, having suicidal thoughts, forming and nearly losing a band – before looking in the mirror and declaring: “It’s gonna be ok, baby”.

“You cut so close to the bone on this record,” marvels Maskin.

Gavin prefers to recall another piece of feedback, from McPherson’s mother: “This album has a lot less pretence”.

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Sony Music

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The band are back in the UK for their first headline tour this winter

“I think about that a lot,” laughs the singer.

“I didn’t know there was stuff I was leaving off the page on the first record. Like, I don’t think I was necessarily aware of the mask I had on.

“I think that’s part of your journey as an artist, you’re just consistently sloughing off layers. And that was the hope, making this record, that I’d be able to be more honest than I was before.”

Will it save the world? Probably not. But Muna’s willingness to gouge out those deep, unwanted emotions and insist on self-preservation gives hope to anyone who, like them, has felt alone and aimless.

“I’m not the kind of person to believe in fate, but I do believe that some things are supposed to exist,” says Maskin, “and I’ve always felt that way about Muna specifically: Everything we’ve done, we were supposed to do.”

One breath at a time.

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