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‘A Number’ – Caryl Churchill play has great performances from Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu and is stimulating…

‘A Number’ –  Caryl Churchill play has great performances from Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu and is stimulating…

This is the first time that two stars from the global majority are performing Caryl Churchill’s play, ‘A Number’, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in a run at the Old Vic..(Spoiler alert)

AS A PLAYWRIGHT, she is regarded as one of Britain’s best and this piece which deals ostensibly with cloning is really more about fathers and sons, bad parents, regrets and the chance to start all over again.

Directed by Lyndsey Turner at The Old Vic, the show features the acting duo, Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu, and in a witty 65 minutes this sparring two hander examines all of the above.

Essiedu who plays the son is called, Bernard 1 & 2 and Michael Black in the programme – there are two versions of him and this is part of play’s central subject. He wants to know how he was born, whereas his father, Salter (as named) and played by James is trying to recreate a lost perfect child to whom he can offer unconditional love.

Bernard 1 (Paapa Essiedu)

The set, by Es Devlin, features a kitchen and sitting room side by side in a blazing red hue. The dialogue is sparse and each of the five scenes is punctuated with a black out, music and bright spot lights that come on. It feels like suspended animation and although the set looks great it’s a bit underused and serves as a backdrop to a series of father- son confrontations.

“They’ve taken your cells, it is part of you, they belong to you,” goes a sentence and whether it’s cloning or IVF, the moral issue is whether it is done with consent or not.

“They were only supposed to make one”, says the dad who is aghast to discover that his desire for a perfect child may have meant that replicas have been created without his consent. James is fantastic as the father, who is slightly devoid of emotion (until the end).

Salter-Father (Lennie James)

If you’re unfamiliar with the play – as I was – the writing is deep and it does take a moment to realise that when Essiedu comes back on stage in the second scene (albeit dressed slightly differently) that he’s playing another version of the son. “Did you give me the same name?” he enquires.

Arguments range from sibling rivalry, parenting and a lost mother? There is much about the ethics of cloning and nature or nurture? What happens if you kill a clone of yourself, is it a real fratricide?

I particularly liked the final scene set in the art gallery and conversation between the father and son 3, Michael, who sports an American accent and seems to be the most contented of the siblings while the father is desperate for a connection as they are genetically related.

Salter wants to know if his son has feelings towards him, while the son engages in banter about his life, family and dogs. “I was hoping for something more personal”, he says forlornly.

There are fine performances in this revival of a complex, thought provoking play.

ACV rating: **** (out of five)

Pictures: Courtesy of The Old Vic and ©ManuelHarlan

‘A Number’ – Caryl Churchill (from January 24) until March 19, Mondays to Saturdays. 7.30pm with matinees on Saturdays and Wednesdays at 2.30pm – there are captioned and audio described performances, see link below for further details – The Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London SE1 8NB (Waterloo)

About 65 minutes
Suitable for age 14+
Trigger warnings – see below


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture