Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
Caryl Churchill is always a surprising playwright. It is safe to say that her new plays will always be unpredictable as she enjoys experimenting with both form and ideas and never repeats herself. She also has an incredibly sharp mind and a willingness to explore uncomfortable subjects from new angles.
The Royal Court has put together a really top team to produce A Number: Director, Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliott and An Inspector Calls fame), Sir Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, star of Sam Mendes' latest film The Road to Perdition.
In bright white light with a black background, two men are put under a spotlight for an hour. Their personalities are explored and their relationship trisected. It is hard to go into too much detail about the plot without spoiling the hard-worked-for effect.
Gambon plays the father of a young man who is cloned into 21 supposedly exact copies. His meetings with the original and two clones help us to understand the advantages and dangers of genetic engineering to society and the individuals involved.
A Number is also an exploration of the way that people develop regardless of their genes - the nature versus nurture debate. As he meets his sons we see the older man's behaviour change to mirror theirs, perhaps showing that they are all to an extent alternative chips off the old block.
The play very cleverly both emphasises and diminishes the differences between men from the same test-tube who have had vastly different upbringings.
The acting from both men is very powerful and moving and Daldry keeps a high level of suspense throughout this enigmatic and elliptical play that is reminiscent in many ways of Pinter's work.
It is not an easy work to understand at first sight but has a deep visceral effect and the immediate reaction as the curtain comes down is a desire to see it again, or at least read the script. This is necessary in order to understand more of Churchill's nuances and to increase the appreciation of an incredibly fine production that is a credit to all involved.
It is also a play that you will want to discuss and debate long after you have left the theatre.
A Number is playing until 16th November
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher