A Number – Old Vic Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Caryl Churchill

Director: Lyndsey Turner

Caryl Churchill is one of our premier science fiction writers, a fact which isn’t celebrated enough. Like all the best SF, Churchill’s work takes futuristic concepts and weaves stories that talk to us in the present.

2002’s A Number is perhaps the most obvious of her works to fit this description. Paapa Essiedu’s Bernard finds his world tilting on its axis when he discovers that there are clones of him walking around. As he discusses the revelation with his father, Salter (Lennie James) the pair start to disagree on whether the clones are new family members, or whether they are an assault on Bernard’s individuality.

Churchill’s script, which is precise in its characters’ speech patterns, littered with half-completed sentences and crosstalk, leaves everything else unsaid, allowing cast and director to find their own truths in the text. Director Lyndsey Turner elicits a sympathetic portrayal from James, even as his evasion and lies twist in the wind.

Essiedu ups the ante when we then meet an older Bernard, the original son, whom Salter originally told Bernard 2 had died. Essiedu does a remarkable job making the two sons distinctly separate, yet cut from the same cloth. This older character is damaged, perhaps by his father’s poor care, perhaps by abandonment into the care system.

But while Essiedu’s changes from Bernard 1 to Bernard 2 and back are impressive, there is a subtler change in James’s Salter too, presenting different facets to the same character depending on who he is talking with. The lies and evasiveness belie a man shamed by his past actions, but not quite ready to take responsibility. The pair’s interactions reveal a deep, raw, emotional vulnerability in both actors that elevates the whole production.

Es Devlin’s set, a London flat with open-plan kitchenette, paints everything from the walls to the plants and the Post-Its on the fridge in the same blood red, with only a photo of the young Bernard escaping the incarnidine colouring. Against this backdrop, Bernard 2’s clone, dressed by costume designer Natalie Pryce in russet tones, merges into the background, stark contrast to the blues of his spiky, disturbed older “brother”.

The play’s closing moments give Essiedu an opportunity to show a completely different persona, as Salter meets Michael Black, a jollier clone who has a happier life than his brothers. An American, married with three children and a job as a maths teacher, the contrast could not be more stark, and invites us to draw our conclusions about the nature versus nurture debate. Three out of a number of genetically identical individuals have very different lives and personalities, the biggest difference being the extent of their relationship with their father.

Like all the best SF, it’s not about the technology – we never find out much about the science behind the cloning, or the people who carried it out. What we do know may be unreliable, given Salter’s evasiveness. Instead, Churchill uses the framework of speculative fiction to throw a light on human relationships and the damage, or otherwise, we can inflict on each other.

Past and future stagings of A Number are like Bernard/Bernard 2/Michael Black: cut from the same source, but very different depending on how they are brought to life. And as a number of A Number productions go, this Old Vic production is the best and brightest sibling by far.

Continues until 19 March 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

A morality tale with emotional vulnerability

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