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The Theatreguide.London Review

A Number
Young Vic Theatre   Summer 2015

Caryl Churchill's 2002 drama raises questions of morality, identity and the ethics of science, but almost all of these are in the generating concept. The play itself – the hour of two actors moving about and speaking words – adds very little. 

Thirty-five years before the opening of the play a man allowed his young son to be cloned. (He gives several different reasons for having done this, so we are never clear which, if any, is the real one.) 

Without his knowledge and permission (he claims) the scientists made twenty or more additional copies, and they are now all walking the earth as adults, unaware of their roots or of each other. 

What does it do to your sense of self to find out that there are a lot more of you out there? How will the original son feel when he learns that one of him wasn't enough for his father? Are the clones to consider themselves inferior copies or new-and-improved versions? 

These are interesting questions, and I am sure that Caryl Churchill made a list of them and others when she began to think about this play. But not a whole lot would have been lost if she had skipped writing the play and just presented us with the list. 

In the course of the one-hour drama the father meets three of his 'sons', one of whom is the original born-the-usual-way prototype. Faced with the news of the multiple copies, one is enraged, one deeply confused and disoriented and one mildly amused. 

One hates his father, one tries to understand him, one isn't really interested in him. One seems to have led an unhappy life up to now, one a happy one, and we don't really learn much about the third. 

As you may have guessed, the three 'brothers' are played by the same actor, Lex Shrapnel, who succeeds in distinguishing among them with no changes in costume or appearance, and generates some sympathy of each of their experiences. 

His real-life father, John Shrapnel, plays the father somewhat less successfully, the character's unexplained lying and evasiveness making it difficult for us to work up much sympathy for the man. 

For this production transferred from Southampton's Nuffield Theatre director Michael Longhurst and designer Tom Scutt have imposed a staging concept more impressive in theory than practice. 

The Young Vic's studio theatre has been rebuilt so the audience is divided into four observation rooms looking in on the central acting area through one-way mirrors. (If that sounds vaguely familiar, it is virtually identical to Miriam Buether's design for Game at the Almeida earlier this year.) 

Stray suggestions of a police interrogation room or mental hospital aside, the effect is seeing the two actors reflected repeatedly in the mirrors surrounding them, which as a visual symbol of shattered identity is a bit too heavy-handed to work.

In the brief blackouts between scenes the lighting is shifted so each audience room sees a reflection of itself, another bit of symbolism more delighted in its own cleverness than really evocative. 

The end result of this mix of a limited text and a production unable to enhance it is that you get as much of what A Number has to offer from reading that list of questions I posed earlier as from sitting in the theatre for an hour.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - A Number - Young Vic Theatre 2015

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