There is an increasing acknowledgement that a significant number of young male suicides could have been prevented if more support for such people were in place, and if there was a way of breaking the apparent stigma attached to admitting that everything is not, to misquote the musical Gypsy, coming up roses. Jack (a fresh-faced Henry Waddon) is not as open with his girlfriend Brianna (Abi Harindra) as both wish he would be – something is stopping him from just telling it like it is, at least partly because he doesn’t quite know what his own problem is.
Rather startlingly, there isn’t even a visit to the GP, which I suppose is realistic for a 21-year-old (or even a man of any age), though Jack does (sort of) redeem himself by going along to group therapy sessions. I couldn’t think of anything worse, sitting around talking about one’s problems and listening to other people’s issues, but Jack has his reasons for finding them helpful, not least when Michael (Alex Blanc), another member of the group, shares a triumph over adversity story that gets Jack thinking. They bump into one another one evening, and Michael sets Jack straight – therapy is not a miracle cure.
The show’s title derives from Jack’s love of figures, which he uses to good effect in describing himself as he introduces himself to the support group (and therefore to the audience) – he rattles off his own body dimensions, knows he has precisely 931 friends on Facebook (and a substantially smaller number of ‘real-life’ friends), and once spent twenty-three minutes trying to dry himself in the school conveniences as a pupil after an, ahem, accident.
One might reasonably expect that level of detail to be quite tiresome, but Jack has enough social awareness to know when to draw back. Or does he? He knows precisely how much he eats, and sometimes it is (if he is to be taken literally) supersize amounts. A lack of self-discipline in other areas (he does not, I hasten to add, cheat on Brianna) complicates things further. The audience learns about Brianna and about Michael sufficiently, but this is really Jack’s story – the sheer number of direct addresses to the audience helps maintain engagement with what is sometimes a deep and intense piece of theatre.
Alex Blanc’s script is nuanced and demanding, and Waddon rises to the challenge, and in the vernacular of his generation, nails it. Thoroughly convincing from start to finish, the stumbling speech patterns of someone trying to find the right words and failing (I know I’ve been there), and the resulting short-temperedness that arises from such frustrations make this show an intriguing watch, even if not altogether pleasant. Moments of comic relief come with references to things Jack and Brianna enjoy, such as ice cream and a Channel 4 Television documentary series called The Undateables, where people with disabilities, disorders and learning difficulties go on dates. “Your eyes are as brown as the tree trunks,” one of the participants apparently once said to their date, often quoted by Jack in conversation.
The ending is left open, as it should be with a central character with much of his life still ahead of him. The set is kept simple, with an emphasis essentially on the dialogue, though it is never difficult to work out whether Jack is at home, in a group session or at Roxy’s, a local bar. This play is a welcome addition to the ever-growing discussions about mental health in twenty-first-century living.
Review by Chris Omaweng
For months, Jack has quantified everything through numbers: his weight, how much he can bench press, the number of calories in a cup of coffee. He hasn’t told anyone, not even his girlfriend Brianna. All he wants is for it all to go away. Then he meets cynical, sarcastic alcoholic Michael, and learns that help often comes from unexpected places.
Numbers is told through direct address – the audience taking on the role of Jack’s therapist – mixed with flashbacks and scenes from his life. Through its exploration of eating disorder recovery, the show looks at the numbers that come to define us, and how we can let them go. Its themes of friendship, healing, and resilience will resonate with many.
Following a successful run in Oxford in March, Numbers by Alex Blanc makes its London debut. Numbers has been selected by Oxford University Dramatic Society as its official national tour show for 2019. It will be performed at C Aquila Temple in Edinburgh for a full Fringe run (1st-26th August).