A Number, Old Vic, review: cloning-drama revival that feels surplus to requirements
Is Caryl Churchill’s super-clever 2002 cloning drama at risk of becoming the Educating Rita of the 21st-century stage? Willy Russell’s successful two-hander of 1980, about a bibulous academic and his increasingly assertive female tutee, became a byword for safe theatrical staple: it didn’t cost the earth or leave audiences short-changed and could reliably bolster a venue’s coffers.
Similarly nifty, if far more darkly cerebral, A Number runs about an hour and relies on just two actors, one of whom plays different versions of the same bundle of genetic material, thereby evoking an eerie near-future of mass human “production”. Since the Royal Court premiere, which starred Michael Gambon as a father confronting iterations of his son (played by Daniel Craig), I’ve lost count of its incarnations, including the real-life father-son combo of Sam and Tim West. It was presented, capably, at the Bridge two years ago.
I can’t claim that such ubiquity represents a programming crisis, and I can see why – post Covid – the choice makes logistical sense. Still, there’s a distinct threat of déjà vu. Directed by Lyndsey Turner and designed by Es Devlin (newly in the spotlight on account of working on Adele’s abruptly cancelled Las Vegas residence), this production offers something of a fresh slant, but still winds up feeling – oh the irony, given the subject – surplus to requirements.
The departure? Lennie James takes the role of Salter, the paterfamilias with guilty secrets to divulge, and Paapa Essiedu plays the variations on a filial theme, beginning with 35-year-old Bernard, who has discovered that “a number” of copies of him exist. The casting in itself perhaps invites a wider than usual audience demographic. It also means you can possibly view the action with an eye on black British experience. The issue of paternal absence in the black community isn’t conjectural and arguably tallies with the evening’s emergent theme of father/son estrangement. While the dystopian science may be some way off, the emotional substance is close to home.
The play’s peculiar, tragicomic dramatic charge has always lain in its twin aspect of philosophical interrogation – what is it that makes us “us”? – and psychological perturbation: how do we cope when we find out things about ourselves we didn’t know and our sense of identity is thrown into confusion?
Devlin’s set situates the characters within an abstracted idea of domesticity – the colour scheme a violent red, the plethora of objects on shelves phoney-looking. But the attitudes and accents of the duo are, in the main, straight off the street.
Essiedu, clutching a bike helmet and sporting a puffer-jacket, enters his father’s kitchen/living-room wearing an attitude of amused perplexity, the character trying to get his head round the shock revelation that duplicates of him exist. A superb Hamlet for the RSC, the actor excels at thinking aloud, eyes widening as the ramifications sink in, genial smile turning glacial.
By contrast, James is defensively downbeat, shifting as his story does, with its grudging admission that Bernard was engineered to replace an older “original”, first described as having died, but, as we see (Essiedu re-appearing in different clothes and a more acrimonious register), alive and seething with neglect.
If you haven’t seen the piece before, its sharp twists and turns remain a model of ingenuity. But, although he catches Salter’s hollow bluster and open mercenary motivations, James’s emphasis on him as a flawed family man rather than a more sinister figure makes his performance little match for Gambon’s subtly monstrous and mentally unravelling turn. And his relative humility diminishes the satisfaction of the final scene, involving a variant son who blithely refuses to be a damaged plaything.
Churchill’s sparse text carries a phenomenal charge of self-centred parenting, insinuated abuse, and resultant resentment – an Oedipal struggle for self-definition and survival. That doesn’t carry across here. I’d suggest no further revivals for a number of years.
Until March 19. Tickets: 0344 871 7628; oldvictheatre.com