Written in 2002 at a time when Dolly the Sheep was very much a conversation piece Caryl Churchill’s tragedy, A Number is propelled into a very intense and intimate enactment between a father (Lennie James) and 3 versions of his cloned son Bernard (Paapa Essiedu) on stage. Almost 20 years on the word clone does not attract the same debate, horror or reproach that it once did.
The play has had several revivals, Lyndsey Turner’s Old Vic version sees James (Salter) playing the father who wanted his son back after a tragedy – but it all went wrong, ending up with 3 versions of Bernard (Essiedu plays Bernard 1 2 and 3), his dead son… who was born after the death of his wife.
The encounters that Salter has with his sons carve out the belly of this story about parental neglect, displacement, regret, and loss. Bernard 1 cannot grasp the concept of being cloned or actually being a clone and it throws him into an identity crisis as he seeks out his cloned siblings, ending in tragedy for Salter. Bernard 1 is a soft gentle character who is terrified by the unstable and perhaps dangerous Bernard 2. Bernard 3 is an American called Michael Black who appears to be disconnected from reality and lacking any social skills. Essiedu’s Bernard shows off his skills and the might of his range as an actor. The super fast clothes changes are impressive and help in this too.
James’ Salter sees James back on the London stage after a very long time, making it a very welcome return. As he plays Salter to his strength, we feel his despair and that tiny bit of hope that perhaps if he did not get parenting right the first time, maybe it might work the second or third time around.
A Number is delivered in just over an hour, with the back drop of Es Devlin’s simple set that pushes the actors centre stage. Churchill’s great story transcends time and culture and is a must see play.
WHERE: Old Vic 103 The Cut Waterloo Rd
London SE1 8NB
Tube: Waterloo; Rail: Waterloo
£10-£65. Runs 1hr 5min
Bar open 6pm-midnight Mon and Tue; 1pm-midnight Wed; 6pm-2am Thu and Fri; 1pm-2am Sat