A Number

Caryl Churchill
Red Brick Theatre
53two, Manchester

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A Number
A Number
A Number

Philip Larkin famously remarked how children are messed up by their parents. According to Caryl Churchill’s A Number,the poet may have been understating the case.

Bernard (Tom Ryder) is devastated when a routine medical examination reveals he is not a unique individual but one of a number of clones. Salter (Joe Simpson)—Bernard’s father (or at least the man who raised him)—explains he agreed to the cloning after his birth child and wife died in a traffic accident. Salter so adored his son, he wanted an identical replacement rather than a new child.

Like many of Salter’s statements, this explanation is self-serving rather than true. Salter’s wife committed suicide when his birth son was two years old, and Salter turned to drink and neglected the child before having him taken into care aged four. When Salter sobered up, he decided to give fatherhood a second chance, hence the cloning.

The cloned Bernard struggles with having his sense of identity and individuality undermined. However, the impact of the cloning revelation upon Salter’s unwanted birth child, grown to adulthood, is more practical than philosophical. Whilst the cloned Bernard has an affectionate and trusting personality, having been raised in a loving household, the birth child Bernard is embittered by his dysfunctional upbringing, and the trauma has left him with mood swings. The discovery the father who abandoned him preferred and lovingly raised a cloned version pushes him to jealously express a willingness to inflict violence on his sibling.

Works by Caryl Churchill are a daunting prospect for a fringe company, but director Jess Gough handles the author’s fractured and overlapping dialogue with style. There is even a cheeky melodramatic gothic touch, as scene changes feature Tom Ryder angrily striding around the stage going the full Jekyll and Hyde and transforming between the different personalities of the clones.

Salter is a weaselly character, tying himself in knots trying to justify his actions and distract his sons from learning the truth. Joe Simpson makes no effort to redeem the character, almost gloating as he recalls how he willingly neglected his birth child. There is always a suggestion a parent egotistically hopes some aspect of them will live on through their children. A late scene indicates this may have been the selfish motivation behind the cloning. Salter traces a further cloned version of his son and is disappointed the happy but somewhat shallow chap cannot articulate an individual trait which defines his personality—by which Salter probably means reflects some aspect of himself.

The production is a showcase for Tom Ryder’s talents, allowing him to create sharply different personalities. The cloned Bernard is eager to please and accept his father’s view of events, but his anxiety is apparent in discreetly twitching limbs and restless gestures. The birth child Bernard is altogether nastier—his speech coarser and his smiles closer to sinister sneers. As he engages with his father, there is an undertone not just of resentment but also potential violence. A second cloned Bernard even gives Ryder the chance to show a lighter, comedic touch.

With A Number,Red Brick Theatre presents a strikingly successful version of a challenging play and demonstrates being on the fringe need not be limiting.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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