Poignant and profound, Numbers – the latest production from Oxford University’s Mercury Theatre – provides a compelling meditation on notions of masculinity and mental health.
Set predominantly in a support group, the narrative centres on Jack (Henry Waddon) as he struggles to articulate, and moreover, to comprehend his debilitating anxieties. Structurally, the play is comprised of a series of confessional monologues interspersed with flashbacks, wherein audiences are introduced to Jack’s endlessly empathetic girlfriend Brianna (Abi Harindra). These scenes offer a degree of objectivity, allowing audiences to observe the interpersonal ramifications of Jack’s reticence. A welcome change of pace, such scenes recontextualise Jack’s anxiety whilst retaining the integral intimacy which unifies the narrative. A further addition arrives in the form of Michael (Joe Woodman), who acts as both a foil and an aid to Jack’s acknowledgement and eventual exhumation of his troubles.
The production is minimalistic; placards denoting ‘urinal’ and ‘mirror’, etc. hang on the upstage wall, the set otherwise consisting of folding chairs, which outnumber the actors 5:3. Such staging complements the drama, emphasising themes of isolation and evoking a stark emptiness. To push the metaphor, the characters – like the stage – must lay bare. And character work is where Numbers shines. The writing carries well, with credible conversations consisting of tentative, meandering dialogue successfully selling the characters’ difficulties in disclosing their respective vulnerabilities.
However, for all of the complexity offered by Jack and Michael, Brianna seems comparatively underwritten, and her boundless support and saint-like patience is improbable at times. Regardless, Numbers is perhaps most impressive in its exemplary acting, especially that of Waddon, who carries the play with his display of nuanced vulnerability. From the rigid contortions and fretful wringing gestures that betray Jack’s discomfort to his devastating – yet inevitable – emotional release, Waddon is wholly convincing throughout.
The exploration of masculinity in crisis is equally delicate. The characters are complicated – confounding any attempts at reductive simplification – and their troubles stem from various, cumulative anxieties rather than discernible, isolated incidents. Among these anxieties is the notion of conformity on account of social pressure. The numbers which give the play its name are Jack’s obsessive statistics of self-worth, feigned and fabricated for appearance’ sake: Jack has 931 Facebook friends to his real-life 20, whilst his eight sexual partners – he later admits – are closer to four.
Sensitively handled, Numbers is non-judgemental; Jack’s façade is acknowledged, but never deemed as shallow superficiality. Neither overtly didactic nor condemnatory, the play does away with in-your-face social commentary in favour of delivering a contained – though inconclusive – narrative that thrives in its authenticity and makes for a thoroughly compelling watch.