Photo credit: Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James in A Number (Photo courtesy of Old Vic)

'A Number' review — Caryl Churchill's cloning play returns with added vigour

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It's 20 years since Caryl Churchill's spry, elliptical cloning play premiered at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, and it remains a fascinating chamber piece for a talented pair of actors - as we see here with the great Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu in this anniversary revival.

James plays Salter, who, following the death of his young son, had him cloned in order to have a second chance at parenting him. But the doctor actually created multiple unauthorised versions - the "numbers" of the title - and Salter is now confronted by several of them, and by the choices he made.

That gives Essiedu the opportunity to transform, which he does remarkably. We first meet his Bernard 2, a laidback, physically confident man who arrives in a giant orange coat and motorbike helmet, and casually kicks off his shoes and sprawls on the sofa. He's shocked by the revelation that there are copies of him out there, but his coping mechanism is wry quips. In fact, this is by the far the funniest account I've seen of Churchill's play, adding natural breaths and warm accessibility to the straight-through production.

Essiedu then transforms into Bernard 1: buttoned-up, jittery, constantly clenching and unclenching his fist as anger threatens to burst out of him. He exhibits the deep wounds of abandonment, now curdled into recrimination and vengeance. I won't spoil Essiedu's final incarnation, once again aided by Natalie Pryce's clever costuming, but suffice to say it's a brilliant left turn - a creative choice that adds real heft to the memorably unsettling conclusion.

James, meanwhile, creates a sinister portrait: the seemingly affectionate arch manipulator pulling the same tricks on multiple occasions to deflect blame. Each time, he dangles the possibility of a big payout if they sue the hospital, or uses a mix of emotional manipulation and subtle threats. James switches believably between a man with a swaggering God complex and a vulnerable one rocked by grief and substance abuse. His Salter shapeshifts as much as the clones.

Lyndsey Turner's well-paced production honours the philosophical and science fiction elements of Churchill's play while simultaneously exploring more grounded ideas, like the inheritance of trauma and mental illness, the legacy of addiction, the influence that a parent has over a child - and vice versa - and the still resonant question of how we define our identity. Is it really as superficial as being tidy or messy, liking or not liking dogs?

Yet there's a nightmarish quality to the staging, from Essiedu stressing Salter's "dark, dark power" to the wash of blood-red light over Es Devlin's too-perfect open-plan home, which illustrates Salter's need to control his world. But it feels excessive to also have chaotic classical music between scenes and a blinding flash of light - the latter perhaps meant to disorient us, just as the characters are reeling, but which in practice hauls us out of the performance.

Maybe it's part of differentiating this production from another recent staging at the Bridge (something of a meta issue for a cloning play), but it's not needed. This is a beautifully considered revival that lingers on — and, at just over an hour, offers a master class in economical theatre. Small but mighty.

A Number is at The Old Vic to 19 March. 

Photo credit: Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James in A Number (Photo courtesy of Old Vic)

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