Donal the Numb
Reviewed – 6th March 2019
“packs some great ideas into an enjoyable hour of dancing, singing, jokes, balloons and cartwheels”
Criminally, this was my first time at VAULT Festival, the “carnival of experience” where for eight weeks a year, London theatre-goers can head underground to see an amazing array of theatre, comedy, cabaret and more. The festival aesthetic is pure urban decay with shows chalked up on boards and posters filling every gap, and it’s certainly a cool environment to explore. As shows go, ‘Donal the Numb’ was an intriguing way to lose my VAULT virginity. At once funny, sad, and wince-inducing, Ross White’s one-man-show is an honest and moving exploration of how human beings deal with distress.
Donal has come all this way to put on a show. He’s a medical marvel, a freak, a Daily Mail sensation. And he’s ready to tell his story. A sensitive child, Donal quickly learns how to bottle and store his more extreme emotions. Ignored by his older brother Eoin and bullied in high school, he develops a strange numbness to everything. He can literally feel nothing. No pain when he breaks his leg on sports day, no joy, no sadness. As his family begins to breakdown and disappear, will he ever manage to get his feelings back?
As the sole performer, Ross White effortlessly blends Donal’s vacant numbness with an array of different characters. From his kind and caring mother singing ‘Thank You For The Music’ to a stern religious father whipping out biblical jokes, Donal’s memorable family form the emotional core of this story, and as we hear more and more of their worried voicemails (outstanding work from voice over artists Ellen Whitehead, Odhrán McNulty and Michael Shea), the gravity of Donal’s condition begins to sink in.
The set design (Liam Bunster) is sparse but fun, with a circus-style Donal poster, balloons and red carpeted steps welcoming us to the carnival. Director Katie-Ann McDonough has drawn out the comedy in White’s movements and character choices, but these could still be physically and vocally more defined. Donal’s gruesome attempts to feel pain sent the audience recoiling in horror and, oddly, become one of the most thrilling aspects of the show.
Donal is not an exception however, there’s a Donal in all of us. His family’s story ends in tragedy, and Donal can only stare out at his audience, challenging them to feel something that he cannot. But how often do we bury down our emotions, shy away from them? How often do we let silence mask what we really feel? Donal teaches us to indulge, share, and be open to change.
Touching and funny, this slender play packs some great ideas into an enjoyable hour of dancing, singing, jokes, balloons and cartwheels. Catch it while you can.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Donal the Numb
Part of VAULT Festival 2019