Theatre

‘A Number’ review – Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu star in a riveting rebuttal to revisionism

★★★★★

Can we truly make a mistake, and recover from it? Those who bemoan today’s ‘cancel culture’ – or, to give it its proper name, ‘accountability’ – would argue it’s difficult, if not, impossible. So what if you made a mistake with fatherhood? Is it even possible to try again?

In Caryl Churchill’s A Number, Salter (The Walking Dead and Line of Duty star Lennie James) certainly hopes so. So much so, in fact, that he’s cloned his son (I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu) to have another go at being a dad. The only issue is that the laboratory made a number of additional clones without his knowledge or consent.

When Churchill’s genetic thought experiment debuted in 2004, it was in the age of Dolly the Sheep. Now, under Lyndsey Turner’s direction, it comes at a time where we’re learning what it means to learn – not least from our own mistakes. It remains a play about the father-son relationship, of course, but underscored in this production is how much one can learn from the other.

In the case of Bernard 1 (the ‘original’) and Bernard 2 (a clone), they definitely have a lot to learn. While the latter wants to find out more about the experiment gone wrong with nonchalant uncertainty, B1 is enraged and unpredictable after learning what his father has done – and Essiedu’s performance is electric. In his silence and floods of tears, we see the aching trauma of a man who can never really feel content knowing there’s more of ‘him’ out there. Cloning may still feel like a hypothetical, near-future concept at present, but our innate desire to be individual and unique – perhaps unconscious to many – is on full display here, and it is visceral, raw and powerful.

‘Powerful’ being a particularly fitting word of the three in this context, because the typical father-son dynamic we would come to expect in a typical paternal relationship is fractured and broken in A Number, the unique circumstances turning the situation into a free-for-all for authority. Director Lyndsey Turner is delightful with the dynamics. The original son and the clones often look at their hands while gesticulating – a minute gesture, but when one considers the facts that the ‘lines’ on our hands and our fingerprints are unique, it’s an exceptional attention to detail.

James and Essiedu perform on a monochrome, orange living room set, designed by Es Devlin with her usual vibrancy on show. The only exception to this otherwise calm and minimalist backdrop is a framed photo of Bernard 1 on a shelf. Everything else, materialistic as it is, is not influential upon the relationships we see in front of us – save, perhaps, for the seating. Who is sitting down, and when, is worth noticing in this battle of words. Who is being lectured to, and why?

Salter, of course, has a lot to learn about being a father, while the sons are desperate to learn about themselves. As such, the typical position of a father is decimated, and the power play is magnificent.

In Salter’s case, James’ portrayal is chillingly calculating and enigmatic with short, pointed dialogue. He is manipulative throughout, constantly bending the truth to B2 so as to mould the parental narrative. The subtle tragedy behind his character – at first unaccepted by him until he meets another clone at the very end of the 65-minute production – is that fatherhood is not all that malleable, and the decisions made in the formative years shape who a son is to become. We see that a seemingly fatherless and hilariously awkward people pleaser clone named Michael Black struggles to provide a personal anecdote or opinion which isn’t shaped by others, much to Salter’s dissatisfaction.

In 2022, A Number demonstrates that fatherhood is set in stone, and while mistakes can change people, they can and must be learned from. Amended in the present, rather than by cowardly wiping the slate clean. Over and over again.

A Number is now playing at the Old Vic Theatre until 19 March.

An audio described performance will take place on 18 February, with a captioned performance scheduled for 21 February.


Production Images: Manuel Harlan.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch a press performance of ‘A Number’ for free in exchange for a review of the production as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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