A Number

Caryl Churchill
Library Theatre, Manchester
(2009)

Production photo

Caryl Churchill's short reflection on the issues surrounding human cloning, something still very much in the realm of science fiction rather than science fact even now, has been revived by director Sarah Punshon starring two well-known faces from television: Daniel Casey and John Benfield.

The play opens when Bernard, played by Casey, confronts his father Salter (Benfield) – who brought up his son alone after his wife died – after finding out at hospital that a number of clones of him exist, all of whom have grown up without knowing of the others' existence in a living social and scientific experiment. Benfield denies knowledge of any cloning, then acknowledges he did know of one clone of Bernard, but then the question arises of whether Bernard was the first or a copy.

While it is based around the subject of cloning, the real issues covered in the play are about parenting and the dream of being given a second chance to correct the mistakes made when bringing up a child, the old 'nature or nurture' question where two genetically-identical children are brought up differently by the same person with very different results and the social responsibility of scientists when dealing with issues that fundamentally affect people's lives, something that the scientific community takes far more seriously than the sensation-driven press will ever give them credit for.

Churchill's self-consciously quirky dialogue bears interesting comparison to that of Mamet in Oleanna, currently running at the Octagon in Bolton. Both plays use a hyper-real style that bounces half-sentences and even half-words rapidly between two characters, which requires very accurate timing and delivery from the actors if it is not to sound awkward and halting. Both plays also make liberal use of the word "yes" as a rather vague, ambiguous and unusual – in the context – response. Like the Octagon production, Punshon's production is only partially successful in this respect, with some odd rhythms, pauses and emphases in parts that go against what the words seem to mean.

Casey does a very good job of playing three different people who look identical but have distinctly different personalities: fearful and emotional Bernard (the first one we see, but is he Bernard 1 or Bernard 2?), scary, unpredictable and violent Bernard and happy-go-lucky Michael. Benfield is very hesitant at times with the dialogue, but otherwise gives a solid performance as Salter, always changing his story to try to keep people happy.

This production is an interesting and occasionally amusing way to spend a little over an hour at the theatre that provides some food for thought, although the issues that are still relevant are not really developed to any significant extent, and the issue of cloning seems just a little dated seven years on from the original production now that the media have found other issues in science to distort in order to provoke people's fear and disgust and sell newspapers.

Reviewer: David Chadderton