CW/TW: Discussion of mental health problems and eating disorders.
‘Jack has 931 friends on Facebook. He weighs 75 kilos, has a body fat percentage of 11 point 4 and the longest he’s gone without eating is eight and a half hours.’
Numbers by Alex Blanc is a piece of new writing on at the Pilch this week that explores the mental health of an individual through the ‘numbers’ that come to define us – our weight, height, calorie intake, amount of instagram likes or even the price of items we regularly purchase.
The plot follows Jack (Henry Waddon), who becomes increasingly absorbed in a rigorous gym and clean-eating regime. The first half of the play traces how Jack’s obsession turns toxic, and how in the process he pushes away close friends Brianna (Abi Harindra) and Darren (Hamish Venters). The second-half of the play paints a more hopeful picture of mental health, as Jack attempts to get himself back on track alongside the equally as problem-ridden Michael (Louis Cunningham).
Numbers draws attention to crucial issues. For a start, there are nowhere near enough narratives in popular culture that examine how mental health and masculinity intertwine, and in this way Numbers focuses on a pertinent topic. In line with this, I am glad to hear that the profits from Numbers will be donated to the hugely important mental health charity SANE. The play was particularly successful in its exploration of masculinity during a scene in which Jack recounts a story from the night before to his female friend, Brianna, and then to his male friend, Darren. The dialogue continuously switches back and forth between his conversation with Brianna and his conversation with Darren, and with these switches Jack’s tone shifts utterly from that of concerned vulnerability to laddish bragging. Staging at moments like these was effective, with Jack positioned in between Brianna and Darren, thereby pulled between these two conflicting sides of his identity. Later in the play we are reminded of the devastating effects of this clash between mental illness and masculinity, as Jack reminds us of the fact that, in the UK, suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45.
Waddon provides a particularly compelling central performance as Jack, his performance studded with physical tics that reveal Jack’s consistent nervousness. A significant portion of the script consists of Jack addressing the audience directly, and Waddon did well to keep the audience engaged during monologues, displaying impressive variety in his acting. Harindra, Venters and Cunningham should also be commended for their supporting roles, providing unique counterpoints to Jack’s story and illustrating the fact that mental health affects everyone in totally different ways.
Numbers was extended by writer Alex Blanc from a ten minute piece to a two-hour play, and this becomes increasingly evident as the performance goes on. At times the narrative dragged a bit, and I believe the text could prove more effective if it were shorter. The main issue I had with the play was that it opened up multiple channels of thought, yet I was left with unanswered questions. What did Jack do for work? Where were his family? How old was he? These questions seem very literal – questions that needn’t always have answers provided by a two-hour play. Yet, issues arose because some aspects of the plot were more developed than others, which led to some confusion on my part. For example, Brianna’s situation at work was consistently touched on, but by the play’s end her emotional and mental decline felt barely explained. Equally, I had doubts about the function of Michael in the second half.
Ultimately, I think the script was too ambitious – it sought to do too much, and as such left the audience with loose ends. The script was at its best when it focused on Jack’s own journey, and I only wish we could have looked into his character’s background and personality with greater complexity. Amongst the barrage of numbers, it was difficult to feel the story’s nuance.
Numbers touches on intensely important issues. Whilst I commend Mercury Theatre’s production and encourage others to see it, I find myself wishing that it retained a sharper focus.