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A Number Roger Allam and Colin Morgan in A Number. Photo: Johan Persson

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A Number

By Caryl Churchill
Bridge Theatre, London
Until March 14

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on February 23, 2020
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

The nature vs. nurture debate is as old as the hills but was given added momentum in 2002, when this play about cloning premiered, as it coincided with the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep. Churchill built on that to explore the emotional and philosophical ramifications of how cloning of humans might play out. It won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play that year.

This tight and taut 60-minute play (Churchill is the mistress of concision) comprises a series of scenes between a slightly shady middle-aged man, Salter, as he confronts three versions of the son he fathered - here named B1, B2 and Michael.

The original production boasted Michael Gambon as the father and Daniel Craig as the sons, but here director Polly Findlay has cast Roger Allam and Colin Morgan who present more London working-class versions of the characters. Allam, who has seemingly never given a bad performance, is like an unscrupulous London cabby here, slyly going along with whatever the other party might suggest.

Morgan, whose career is on a fast-upward trajectory, does wonders in delineating a triptych of the son, all differentiated and obviously shaped by very different life experiences. B2 is rather sweet and ordinary but overwhelmed by it all. He is a clone of B1, who by contrast is angry, bitter and out for revenge. Then there’s Michael (Morgan gives him his own Belfast accent) whose contentment with being a regular family man is total which utterly discomfits the widower father, who we learn wasn’t exactly the best at parenting.

Salter says he’s upset because illegal copies of his son were made and he’s after compensation, but we gradually realise there is a lot more to it. Without giving away any of the plot it is enough to say that the play uncovers the darkness which could be unleashed if, as a society, we blithely went down this road.

Lizzie Clachan’s set of a worn-out suburban living room and kitchen adds layers of sadness to this tale and is just perfect. It also incorporates some astonishingly fast blackout scene changes. But it’s Findlay’s detailing of the performances, blended with top notch design elements which give this revival a contemporary urgency. It never feels like a ‘classic’ or a ‘play of ideas,’ but it is one.

Churchill doesn’t dwell on the why, here, and focuses instead on how ordinary people put in this position might fare, knowing that mankind’s intentions are not always progressive or even clear. She’s good on the muddle and mess of life.

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