‘A Number’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars
A Number, Bridge Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Johan Persson

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

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Polly Findlay brilliantly reimagines Caryl Churchill’s cloning play as a kitchen sink drama, powered by a phenomenal performance from Roger Allam

Caryl Churchill’s short 2002 masterpiece ‘A Number’ has always had the air of sci-fi to it: understandable, really, given that it’s about a father being confronted by several clones of his son.

But where its original Royal Court run – starring Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, no less – came with the assumption that Churchill was writing it in part as a response to the 1996 cloning of Dolly the Sheep, a couple of decades distance is handy.

They allow for this revelatory production from Polly Findlay, who virtually treats ‘A Number’ as a kitchen-sink drama. Yes, it is still about Salter (Roger Allam), a man who is visited by a series of versions of his son Bernard (Colin Morgan). But stranger things happen in other Caryl Churchill plays, and ‘A Number’ benefits from not being tied into distracting contemporary events.

Allam’s Salter is a disarmingly gentle, somewhat broken man with a soft south east accent and a nondescript suburban-looking home. He seems genuinely remorseful at the way he’s lived his life, often unable to look the various permutations of his son in the eye.

And yet: he lies and manipulates. In the very first scene, Salter tells a traumatised version of Bernard that he was the original, changing his story in line with the young man’s attempts to make sense of his discovery that there are ‘a number’ of him. In the next scene, Salter is confronted by a far more menacing Bernard, who turns out to be the true original, who Salter abandoned as an infant, deciding that instead he would start over, and be the father to the second Bernard that he never was to the first.

I’ve seen Salter played as blustering and self-justifying, but it’s Allam’s much quieter turn that makes Findlay’s production. Now ‘A Number’ seems – very obviously, in retrospect – to be a play about fatherhood: about the damage parents do to their children, and the irresponsibility in trying to run away from them. Allam’s Salter does not obviously seem like a monster (although there are hints later on that maybe he was). But he abandoned his son over and over again, in almost exquisitely cruel fashion, and ‘A Number’ explores the terrible consequences.

If Allam is the undoubted star, Morgan is also very good: via his performance and Churchill’s precision-tooled language, his two Bernards, though superficially similar – especially as the clone’s resentment grows – are both clearly different characters, one unhinged by a lifetime of trauma and damage, the other shocked that his beloved father is not the man he thought he was. There is also a third incarnation, who we only meet later, and there’s great skill in Morgan’s blithe, easy turn – almost a comedy performance – that horrifies Salter, who is desperately trying to find a profundity or a meaning in what he has done.

Like I say, Findlay’s production smartly avoids heightening the situation: it’s devastating because it feels so familiar. Nonetheless, designer Lizzie Clachan has done something fairly special within that: although Salter’s house never gets any more exotic, the stage completely switches in the blackouts between scenes. Sometimes we change rooms; often we seem to be back in the living room, but at a different angle. It’s subtly disorientating.

There are lots of ways you can interpret ‘A Number’: of course it can be read as being about the ethics of cloning, and certainly it could be interpreted as a philosophical poser – just what is an individual? – or as a Poe-ish short horror story. But it turns out that none of that is as interesting as what lies at the heart of it, what Findlay and Allam drill down into remorselessly: a story about a father, confronted by his son; a story about a man whose actions catch up with him.

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