A Number review – Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu scintillate as father and sons

Old Vic theatre, London
The powerhouse duo’s effortless chemistry and emotional realism brings Caryl Churchill’s cloning tragedy blazing into new life

‘They’ve taken your cells,” says a father to his son in a near-future dystopia where the latter has been cloned in an apparently unauthorised “batch”. So begins Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play, using the concept of cloning to explore identity, inheritance and what makes us uniquely ourselves, written at a time when ethical debates on Dolly the sheep raged.

Like Polly Findlay’s 2020 revival at the Bridge theatre, it presents the story of a father (Lennie James) and three versions of his son (Paapa Essiedu) as a noirish thriller with shifting realities. Es Devlin’s set is a Scandi style living space soaked in blood-red light. There are stark bursts of white lighting, too, (designed by Tim Lutkin), flashing as if to blind us, while unnervingly quick costume changes by Essiedu really do create the illusion of more than one version of him.

But Lyndsey Turner’s production surpasses Findlay’s and turns this strange, elliptical play from a thought experiment into a flesh and blood tragedy of family reckoning, revenge and yearning for redemption, with drama as ancient and eternal, as it is futuristic.

Much of this is down to the powerhouse duo of James and Essiedu. There is a realism and emotional honesty to their performances that creates alchemy and turns every last sentence – and stutter – into a meaningful matter between them. Despite the halting, somewhat gnomic dialogue, their characters come fully to life and the play’s subtler intentions are realised.

Essiedu is astonishing to watch, performing love and blame with equal power. In his hands, this is the story of a son’s identity crisis. But James wrestles it back to make it one of toxic fatherhood, too. He is unassuming at first, smoothly evading culpability, then pleading and apologetic once he is cornered. Even when he reveals the violence of his past he, discomfortingly, retains our sympathies in his effort to start afresh – the clean slate of his new cloned son which gives him the chance to be a “good” father this time.

Despite the darkness, James and Essiedu bring a surprising but genuine humour to their deliveries and sound as if they are in a Beckettian sitcom at times. They are simply scintillating to watch, effortless in their chemistry, syncopated in their dialogue, energising the action so it feels alive with anger, mystery and tragedy. This is a masterclass on how a revival can come blazing to new life in the right hands.

• At the Old Vic, London, until 19 March