A Number

08/04/17

Caryl Churchill’s play is a meditation on the nature of identity, presented here in partnership with Edinburgh’s International Science Festival. Concise, punchy and extraordinarily thought-provoking, it’s set somewhere in the near future and consists of a series of conversations between two characters… or more accurately, between four characters because the play is about cloning and its implications.

The staging is sparse and unsettling. A claustrophobic boxlike space is inset onto the bigger stage of The Lyceum Theatre. The floor inclines sharply upwards and there is little in the way of props: a couple of wooden chairs, three doorways, a bare light bulb. As we join the story, Bernard 1 (Brian Ferguson) is midway through a conversation with his ‘father’, Salter (Peter Forbes). Bernard has just discovered that he is not Salter’s original birth son but a clone created from the genes of an original child, who, Salter tells him, died in a car crash. More unsettlingly, Bernard is not a singular clone but one of ‘a number’ (probably more than twenty) that were created at the same time, without Salter’s knowledge or permission. Bernard is just coming to the realisation that there’s a score of identical copies of him somewhere out there and the thought of it is driving him mad…

Churchill’s dialogue is, as ever, beautifully crafted, lots of overlapping thoughts and fragmented sentences, ideas hinted at but never overstated. Scenes are interrupted by sudden flares of light, which surprise the audience every time they occur. The two actors portray their characters brilliantly and if there’s a disappointment here, it’s only that the play is over too quickly – I was left wishing that there could be another hour of this to relish and that I could have met a few more of those clones. But as the saying goes, that’s all she wrote.

Those who love Churchill’s writing should take the opportunity to catch this rarely seen work. It will stay with you long after the cast have taken their bows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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