Ella Al-Khalil Coyle enjoys Number Theory, an exploration of mental health, at the Durham Drama Festival.

So it begins. Wednesday matinee, the Durham Drama Festival General Programme 2 in the Assembly Rooms theatre. Where, for 50 minutes of my day, I escaped into a world of anxiety projections and mathematics in Imogen Usherwood’s Number Theory.

The curtains open onto the instantly recognisable set of a standard university room. It may be by virtue of its simplicity, but this is one of the more convincing sets I’ve seen in a DST production, nothing is substituted and the bed, desk and whiteboard fit naturally on stage, helped by the extra touches of the layered blankets and bag of Maltesers in the corner. Truly the only thing that seemed off or less convincing was that a maths student would own that many books.

There is a lot done very effectively in this production, from writing, production and performance elements. On the writing, the archetypes of both of Usherwood characters, Evelyn (Helena Baker) and Stella (Hatty Tagart), the manifestation of Evelyn’s anxiety, are captured perfectly in the first few minutes, with Tagart’s relentless energy being a perfect match to Baker’s frustration. What is more curious is that Tagart’s Stella throughout the course of the play is somewhat the more developed and varied character, who I personally had more sympathy towards and generally liked more than Evelyn. You begin to understand towards the end, perhaps it’s part of her manipulation that makes us feel that way, and you want to understand Evelyn’s outrage, it’s simply difficult at times where certain storylines or struggles aren’t explored enough. The characters do grow throughout the production and Evelyn has incredible moments of empowerment and Stella of pure manipulation, but they’re established so well in the first couple scenes their development is a touch lacklustre.

The use of the actual number theory and its applied metaphors are incredibly effective, it doesn’t feel forced as I was scared it would, but more as using a different language to explain the thoughts and fears english won’t support. However, once this section of the play is largely over it has less drive and structure, making understanding when, why and how it should end, less clear.  

The production elements, when used, were incredibly effective, especially in the example of Evelyn’s memory. The change to the blue light and the actors body language along with it was genuinely as transformative as desired, it’s just a shame there wasn’t more use of techniques like these to provide some respite from the constant conversation.

A real standout of the whole experience was Tagart’s portrayal of Stella, it did have some slight repetition to it at certain moments, even when not by virtue of the script, but overall it was an excellent balance of controlling manipulation and childlike irritation, which also provided some excellent moments of comedic relief. Tagart spinning around on a desk chair yelling ‘prick’ is nothing short of iconic. Baker also did an excellent job of taking the audience through Evelyn’s all-too-relatable plight, and showing the frustration and fear that comes along with having to find methods of explaining things you already know to yourself to try and cope, as she does through Stella.

Number Theory explores some incredibly difficult but important themes through a very interesting platform, I only wish there had been a more natural structure, particularly at the end as there are several moments where you feel resolve and expect and ending only for the same conversation to continue. Which, whilst could be symbolic and intention, weakens the impact of the ending which itself was one of the most interesting and unexpected parts of the production. Nevertheless, the show truly was an intelligently crafted and well performed portrayal of living with anxiety, and is not one to be missed!

Number Theory is part of General Programme 2 at the Durham Drama Festival, playing at there Assembly Rooms Theatre.