Number Theory is a two-hander play about anxiety, with Helena Baker playing Evelyn, a 20-year-old maths student, and Hatty Tagart playing Stella, her mental disorder. Disorder seems to be the perfect word to describe writer Imogen Usherwood’s depiction of anxiety, as she uses mathematical concepts to explore how it can be both complex and straightforward, rational and irrational, and, in some cases, infinite.
From the opening moments of the play, a sense of disquiet is well established, as a stark contrast is created between Evelyn’s world of maths and focus as she sits studiously at her desk, and the rest of the room which is dominated energetically by Stella. The staging itself is fairly simple, with a desk, bed and whiteboard where Stella and Evelyn in turn illustrate their ideas, allowing the audience to follow along with the concepts they use as tools to consider the human experience.
Throughout the play, Tagart and Baker display impressive acting chops, with Baker masterfully building her performance steadily throughout to a gutting crescendo where her slowly simmering nervous energy peaks to a shocking reveal of her difficult history. Where Baker’s Evelyn exhibits this slow build, Tagart’s Stella is erratic and surprising as she acts as the perfect foil for Evelyn’s every mood, whether that be riling her when she is calm, or placating her as she spirals.
A standout scene was without doubt when Evelyn makes a breakthrough as to the root of her anxiety. In a disquieting flashback, a blue wash soaked the stage in a menacing light whilst Stella took on the persona of Evelyn’s childhood tormenter. Tagart’s use of voice was unnerving as she adopted a childlike malevolence that stood in stark contrast to Evelyn’s vulnerability. It was a perfect example of how Usherwood writes; with a voice that is so honest it captures not just the anxieties of one with a disorder, but also the fragility and doubt in all of us.
At times, however, the directing seemed uncertain. In one scene, Evelyn and Stella stood directly opposite each other for a large portion of dialogue. This choice of blocking meant much of the rich facial expressions being used were lost to the audience. In addition to this, whilst the ambiguity of the ending may have been a choice, the energy of the play seemed to falter after the wonderfully natural moment when the pair awkwardly dance together preceding Stella’s departure. It could be suggested this mimics the unpredictability of anxiety, however given the rest of the play is so assuredly written it seemed a little incongruous.
Overall, whilst the play at moments faltered slightly, it was fascinating to watch this depiction of the human consciousness as Evelyn moved from being at war with herself to accepting of her identity.
Number Theory will be performed again on Saturday the 8th, at 7:30pm in the Assembly Rooms Theatre.
By Caitlin Barratt