Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

A Disappearing Number

Written and directed by Simon McBurney, in collaboration with the Company
Complicite
Novello Theatre
(2010)

A Disappearing Number production photo

After residencies in New York and India, Complicite return to British soil with their multi-award winning piece of theatre A Disappearing Number. This starts a busy autumn for the company as they revive Shun-kin at the Barbican later this year and A Dog's Heart takes up home at the Coliseum in November.

A Disappearing Number, first seen in 2007, effortlessly interweaves two narratives and demonstrates, as maths lecturer Ruth states, that "if time is continuous, then we are linked to the past and future. And if space is continuous we are linked to the absent." Past, future, present and absent are all important concepts in A Disappearing Number and each one is explored through the show's four protagonists.

Although on the surface US businessman Al Cooper and lecturer wife Ruth appear to have little in common with the father of modern mathematics G.H Hardy and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, as A Disappearing Number progresses their lives course closer together and at times run parallel before they intercept. Ruth's fascination with Ramanujan allows the production to explore his incredible story, along with her own, whilst building upon themes which transcend time, such as relationships, exploration, discoveries and death.

The narratives flits back and forth in time as the two tales unwind and the audience is transported from the quiet quads of Cambridge to the hustle and bustle of India in the blink of an eye.

Complicite are master theatre makers and A Disappearing Number is a visual and technological feast. Exquisite projection is used to conjure up an environment in an instant and scene changes are beautifully choreographed and become integral to the action. Throughout the piece the audience are provided with sheer magic before their eyes as modern whiteboards become old blackboards and digits dance around the theatrical space like falling snowflakes. The imagination is truly stimulated as radiators become railway trains and bed sheets sheets of ice. One character states that mathematics is not a spectator sport, but Complicite prove them truly wrong as hand-written equations as beauteous as any stroke of an artist's brush grace the stage and are themselves masterpieces in their own right.

Although the production does encompass some weighty issues, not forgetting difficult mathematical theorems, lighter moments are provided by Chetna Pandya as BT Call Centre worker Barbara Jones. From the laughter erupting from the stalls, it appears that most audience members have had to deal with their own Joneses of the telecommunications world and the character's overt politeness and passion for her job is most humorous. What makes this character even more interesting is that Complicite play with her.

Indeed play is most important to Complicite and nearly all their work is devised as a result of playing with ideas and each other. Rather than Indian call centre worker Barbara constituting a mere comic diversion, in a horrid turn of fortunes she loses her job. Downsizing is the reason given, but the person linked to this downsizing is the very man she has been trying to help transfer a very special telephone number and so the productions shows, yet again, that we are all linked in some way.

Running at just under two hours without an interval, the production could do with a bit of trimming or even dividing by two to allow for an interval. A Disappearing Number is so fast paced that at times it is slightly difficult to keep up with which time zone and period in which the action is taking place and a breather to let the brain rest may help with this, especially after having just learnt what the Riemann Zeta Function is.

Unfortunately A Disappearing Number is not running infinitely and would-be audience members only have until the 25th September to catch it at the Novello before it disappears from the West End. For those not able to visit the production at the theatre, it will be screened in cinemas across the country on 14th October as part of the National Theatre's NT Live programme.

Playing until 25th September 2010.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen