A Number

Caryl Churchill
The Old Vic
The Old Vic

Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu Credit: Manuel Harlan
Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James Credit: Manuel Harlan

Caryl Churchill wrote A Number twenty years ago when concern over the ethical issues of the creation of Dolly the sheep still resonated but it is concerned with the effects more than the ethics of if and when scientists experiment with human cloning.

How would you feel if you discovered there were other identical versions of you in existence? That is what has happened to Bernard who now wants his father Salter to provide explanation. Should he believe what Salter, the man who has raised him, says?

Salter tells of the death of his wife and their young son, a boy whose loss was unbearable, science created his duplicate. But another Bernard also comes asking questions, a man who grew up in care. What answers does he get?

At first, Lennie James’s Salter is calm and collected in his orderly open-plan apartment. Claiming he hadn’t know there had been multiple cloning, he suggests they can sue and make money. But his apparent anger will change to remorse for his own failings, while one version of Bernard erases the other.

This is a telling in which the facts seem to change change with the perspective. When Salter arranges to meet Michael, one of the clones he hadn’t known about, instead of the tensions and conflict of the other sons, he finds a man at ease in life.

There have been a number of powerful productions since Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig created these roles, including performances by real-life fathers and sons Timothy and Sam West and John and Rex Shrapnel; now Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu give them vibrant new life in a production directed by Lyndsey Turner that is totally gripping. It is full of thoughts about sense of identity, of parental responsibility, jealousies and guilts.

Lennie James travels from the calm confidence of his comfortable life, through the duplicities of his explanations to baffled bewilderment at the self-assurance of the unknown clone he meets. Paapa Essiedu presents three different versions of his cloned son. The two Bernards are not just defined by different clothing but by subtle changes of voice and body language that distinguish while maintaining a likeness between them, while his Michael has a quite different personality.

Transitions are dramatically effected with the deft use of doubles and blinding light flashes that just give time for a quick change.

Es Devlin provides a detailed domestic setting that establishes Salter’s comfortable standing, then, by making it entirely vermilion except for a small photo of his schoolboy son, turns it into a bland background and that is also washed with fratricidal blood.

This is a play that offers something different every time you see it and this production is one well worth seeing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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