The week in theatre: A Number; The Glow – review

Old Vic; Royal Court, London
Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu illuminate Caryl Churchill’s great cloning play, while a fine cast lift Alistair McDowall’s wordy new dystopia

It is proving to be one of the essential plays of the past 20 years. In 2002, A Number carried a special, current thrill, tapping into debates about cloning. On an almost bare, tousled stage a baleful Michael Gambon confronted three versions of his son, all played by a clenched Daniel Craig. Is one of these more “real” than the others?

Questions raised in Caryl Churchill’s drama continue to matter long after Dolly the sheep has ceased to bleat. What counts more, inheritance or upbringing? How do we recognise another individual? Why do we think of ourselves as being singular? This is the fifth production I have seen: each has glinted with different alarms, jokes and sorrows. Directed by Lyndsey Turner, ignited by magnificent performances from Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James, it has a new luminosity.

Turner’s production is beautifully rounded – and spiky. Every aspect presses on Churchill’s themes. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, an insistent set of variations, is woven between scenes. Es Devlin’s design (Adele’s loss is the theatre’s gain) is sturdily naturalistic but is all-over apricot-coloured as if made of overheated plastic, questionably solid.

Essiedu and James set up a terrific dynamic, playing the dialogue less posh than usual, so that questions of money and menace seem particularly immediate; at moments there is a Pinter gangster tang – alongside good domestic detail to do with the casual shucking off and the busybody picking-up of trainers. Both actors have been missing from the stage while lighting up the telly: the stage has missed them.

James, who has to remain recognisably the same person while slowly disclosing information that makes an audience see him differently, shifts subtly between caginess, wiliness, regret – suggesting that damage is its own inheritance. Essiedu’s task is the opposite: to create three separate characters from the same material. He is a marvel, twisting from dishevelled anxiety to thuggish rage; pronouncing “Daddy” as if it were the most desperate of words; finally conjuring up an American sunniness which beams from every atom before he has even opened his mouth. He makes you want to see him in everything. At one point he stretches out his hands and stares at them as if they were foreign to him – and strangers to each other. In that gesture he goes to the heart of this extraordinary play.

Like Churchill, Alistair McDowall belongs to that small group: the dystopian dramatists. He proved a master of the form in Pomona, first seen at the tiny Orange Tree theatre in 2014, which took off from a hole in the middle of Manchester to explore wild realms of wit and savagery. His new play, The Glow, is more noisily ambitious. It judders between 1863, AD343, 1348 and 1993; its cast includes a Roman soldier, a phoney spiritualist medium, a medieval knight, a woman grieving for her dead son, a scholar researching folklore – and a time-travelling visionary.

A rather brilliant cod-academic essay attached to the play text constructs an entire pseudo-academic background, with an invented core text and a thesis about an immortal woman: this is at least as lively as a lot of authentic academic lectures in theatre programmes. It’s a pity there is not more such precise invention in the play itself: a final speech bellows with vapid approximations about apocalypse, with “thunderous force”, “bloated, swelling forms”, “drifting about the void”.

Vicky Featherstone’s production is fast, and full of talent. Space and time are sliced and expanded by Jessica Hung Han Yun’s fine lighting design and by Tal Rosner’s transforming videos, which splash and swarm against the walls, stippling them with forest branches or slapping down, as if on a slide morphing under a microscope, what could be a section of an organ or a volcano. Multitasking, Fisayo Akinade brings his particular intelligence and comic gleam to several characters; Rakie Ayola is spiny and focused; Ria Zmitrowicz is explosive, arresting. Yet there is too much windy writing for the play to sear. It is a series of fiery moments, sometimes glowing, but also guttering.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Number
The Glow ★★★

  • A Number is at the Old Vic, London, until 19 March

  • The Glow is at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London, until 5 March