Review: A Disappearing Number, Complicite at the Novello Theatre

“Some patterns are more difficult to find than others”

I’m nothing if not contrary: I refused endless invitations to see The History Boys despite many people raving about it, I’m just odd like that sometimes. But when someone who really ought to have known better(!) tried to prejudge my response to Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, I was resolved to enjoy it no matter what! After touring India, it is returning to London for a limited engagement after a well-received run in 2008. And fortunately, I really did find it to be contemplative, moving and ultimately most beautiful.

It is incredibly hard to describe just what the show is about as it is impossible to do it justice. On the face of it, it is two love stories: in the modern day, bookish maths lecturer Ruth and stockbroker Al are desperate to start a family as they’ve both turned 40, and then in the 1910s we see the developing relationship between father of modern mathematics G.H Hardy and prodigious Indian maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. But it is so much more as well, with a staging of breathtaking invention that works in elements of movement, vocal effects, chanting, Asian dance, and a slick technological aesthetic with some outstanding projection work, beautiful lighting effects and a smoothly everchanging backdrop that seamlessly changes from blackboard to whiteboard to screen to wall and much more besides.

I can’t pretend to have fully grasped all of the nuances of the show as it is complex at times, but it really doesn’t matter as I was gripped throughout and endlessly moved by the elegiac beauty of so much of what was in front of me. A lot of the mathematics was concerned with the identification of patterns and that is often reflected in the play, with the actors creating their own patterns in the way they were aligned and even though it sounds so simple, it was most effective. And visually, it made for stunning images, none of which I will spoil here but one towards the very end was particularly gorgeous.

Everyone is so strong in this ensemble, each bringing their own strengths whether of South Asian dance or tabla drumming but it was Firdous Bamji playing Al with a lovely rumpled affability and Saskia Reeves’ very personable maths lecturer who completely won me over even though she was often just describing endless sets of numbers. And that’s the magic in what Complicite have done, because even if you are not a maths aficionado it doesn’t matter because it is all about the exploration of the passion behind it, rather than the actual subject.

The show was devised by Simon McBurney but developed by the whole company through their approach of play and it has given every aspect of the show a real, organic feel which is so well balanced. It shows in every single gesture and character and moment being laden with such significance, the way in which the minor character of the call centre worker is developed through a great vocal performance from Chetna Pandya is incredibly touching, and altogether it is almost too much to take in in one setting. The relentless pace takes you on a whirlwind journey and I think I could have done with a little more time to digest things and luxuriate in the emotions of the moment.

A Disappearing Number is executed with such a clarity of vision that even in the most obscure moments, like any time the Reimann Zeta function is mentioned, the company take you with them and more importantly keep you there. In its explorations of the connections between us all, including the links to the past and those who have passed away, it achieves a huge emotional resonance and I for one am extremely glad for this new opportunity to see it.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £4, but it is lovely
Booking until 25th September, but it will be screened in cinemas as part of the NT Live season on 14th October
Note: there’s some smoking onstage towards the end

3 Replies to “Review: A Disappearing Number, Complicite at the Novello Theatre”

  1. *ahem* I don't recall aiming that comment at you in particular, it just happened to be on my mind when I wrote my Deathtrap review as the Novello is on my way home from the Noel Coward… but for the record you're the only "real" person I know NOT to have been bored by ADN.

    I *was* going to comment on the opening sentences in your Les Miz review and how wanting to be a "respected" reviewer only leads to 5-star reviews for Danton's Death, but I fear they might have already got you 😉

  2. So you don't remember patting my arm at the Open Air Theare and saying sorry for your loss then?! Hehe.

    Is your objection to this show just one of dullness then? I just thought it was technically so dazzling and full of striking images that it just swept you along even the more obtuse moments. But hey, if I like it, I like it!

  3. Boring? This? Its one of the most beautiful, important pieces of theatre to emerge in a long time, and it is testament to its quality that it is still touring as popular as ever a couple of years on. You should go back to your populist crowd-pleasers and let real people enjoy real theatre.

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