It is extremely unusual to see something completely new and fresh in theatre, let alone something surprising, but Numbers is just that. A sensitive, poignant and totally absorbing look at mental ill health from the perspective of one young man – Jack – who has decided to seek help, although he tells us at one point that he’s basically fine, 'really'. But this is so very much more: it is deeply layered, nuanced and incredibly clever; the writer Alex Blanc has managed to capture a fascinating and thoughtful through-the-keyhole look at Jack’s life in an unexpectedly honest and deeply mature way. The result is captivating.
Astonishing, poignant, professional quality theatre
Jack, played by Henry Waddon, both holds and drives the whole piece. In a simple set of just three chairs, Jack both starts and ends the play with speaking at a group therapy session. As he starts we realise this is not the nervousness of a young actor, this is the complete anxiety of the character he portrays so effortlessly and beautifully it seems as if he is just being himself. You completely believe what he’s going through in every scene which is so convincing the anxiety spills out into the audience and you feel it too. The acting is impeccable in this but Henry in the lead is absolutely incredible, with a multifaceted and multi-layered performance astonishing for his age.
You are taken on a journey of some of the incidents that have brought Jack to therapy. There are some delicious moments of honesty between Jack and his girlfriend Brianna (Abi Harindra), and a particularly lovely scene where we see from both of their points of view: she thinks he doesn’t want to spend time with her; whereas he has a mass of things going on for him, including not being able to face people and also wanting to protect her from what’s going on for him. She has in the past called him her 'little ray of sunshine' and he wants to be that for her. This is one of many brilliant little moments in the play where we reflect on our own behaviour: we think we might be saying something positive or kind to someone but actually it could increase the pressure they feel to ‘act OK’.
Jack listens to Michael (Joe Woodman) sharing his story at therapy, who asks a vital question: can he be helped, or are some people just too damaged? When they meet by accident in the worst bar in town and Jack tries and fails to say something positive to Michael: a superbly written and performed awkwardness of not knowing the right thing to say to reach out to someone. There is a desperation in the way Jack tries to help which you suddenly realise is also a self-reflection: if he saves Michael then maybe he can be saved himself.
Writer Alex Blanc’s coup is to leave out the therapist: to not offer a specific diagnosis for Jack or Michael. There are hints of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, alcoholism and the mental ill health resulting from homelessness and zealous upbringing, plus more than a hint at an eating disorder – but the importance is placed on their individual stories, not the diagnoses. Even when their stories start subtly to contradict themselves and you glimpse that maybe their truth needs a bit more investigating. In a society that wants answers and to analyse and find facts and a way to fix things, this is a very brave, honest and important statement to make.
The audience were slow to respond at the end: primarily due to there being so much to think about in what they have just seen. It is a great deal to go away and process, in the best way possible. This production sent this reviewer scouring the web searching for who this amazing professional company and actors were; to discover they are students is absolutely jaw dropping. This is astonishing, poignant, professional quality theatre which will leave you thoughtful and hopeful. Mercury Theatre Productions have struck pure gold with this and it deserves to be a national hit.