Size isn’t everything. That’s what Caryl Churchill thinks, anyway. The legendary playwright – now 81 – doesn’t really write things that last longer than an hour these days. 2016’s Escaped Alone – 50 minutes. Last year’s Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. – four plays fitted into two hours.
Two of her bitesize dramas are currently being revived simultaneously. Lyndsey Turner’s revival of the 40-minute Far Away is running at London’s Donmar Warehouse. And downriver, Polly Findlay’s revival of Churchill’s 2002 play A Number is at Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre until mid-March, if you can spare an hour of your time.
Roger Allam stars as Salter, father to an unspecified amount of genetically identical sons, all clones of one another. Colin Morgan plays three of them – Bernard 1, Bernard 2 and Michael – as they learn of their origins individually from their father over five scenes.
But do Allam and Morgan make for a delectable double-act? Can Findlay fill London’s Bridge Theatre with such a slight play? Do the reviewers replicate their previous praise for Churchill’s carbon-copy drama?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
A Number premiered in 2002, a few years after the birth of Dolly the Sheep and the Jurassic Park movies. Cloning, and the ethical dilemmas involved, was a hot topic. Two decades later, that’s not quite the case, but does Churchill’s play pack a punch nonetheless?
It definitely does, say the critics. The cloning content might not have “present-day urgency” but the “underlying questions” still “feel as contemporary as Black Mirror” reckons Arifa Akbar (Guardian, ★★★) – and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★) agrees. “A Number benefits from not being tied into distracting contemporary events,” he contends. It’s now “a play about fatherhood: about the damage parents do to their children, and the irresponsibility in trying to run away”.
“A Number is often described as Caryl Churchill’s ‘cloning’ play, but it’s so much more than that,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “It’s a play about the moral complexity of procreation in which no women are present. A play about parenthood, genetics, identity, the replication of self, and the power of love.”
It is “a bold, challenging and frequently chilling” work for Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre¸ ★★★★), and a powerful and provocative play” for Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). According to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), it’s “a human-interest drama of the highest order – at one level a chilling hypothesis with myriad ethical ramifications, at another a white-heat encapsulation of core impulses we often fail to confront.”
Only Clive Davis (The Times, ★★) doesn’t like it. He finds it “frustrating that Churchill takes so long to say, ultimately, very little”, but he’s alone. Everyone else agrees with Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★★), who says of the hour-long play that “Churchill packs more ideas and feeling into that time than most dramatists manage at twice the length”.
Polly Findlay, an Olivier winner for her work on Derren Brown’s show Svengali, has been trusted with big stages across the country – at the National, at the Barbican, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Manchester and Sheffield. This, though, is her first time working at the Bridge Theatre. And her take on Churchill’s cherished play doesn’t convince everyone.
For Curtis, “Findlay’s taut production feels fresh and immediate”, while for Shenton it’s “meticulous and moving” and for Lukowski it’s “devastating” and “subtly disorientating”. Others, though, have reservations, particularly about Lizzie Clachan’s set – a drab flat, furnished with net curtains and pine tables.
“With each scene shift, the room shifts too, so that we’re seeing it from a different angle,” explains Tripney. “While the effect is disorientating, it’s also slightly forced. Though Findlay successfully draws out the horror of the scenario, the domestic setting jars, perhaps not in the way intended. It weighs down a play that contains so much already.”
“I am not convinced by the way the set revolves between scenes, revealing the home from different angles,” concurs Crompton. “It seems to me to overcomplicate an already elaborate structure. Nor do I like Marc Tritschler’s interscene music, which seems overemphatic.”
Davis, meanwhile, thinks Findlay’s staging just doesn’t fit the auditorium it’s in. “In a venue the size of the Bridge, Polly Findlay’s production seems even more underpowered,” he writes.
The cast for Findlay’s revival of A Number is small but starry: Roger Allam, recognisable for small screen roles in Endeavour and The Thick of It, and a two-time Olivier-winning legend on stage; and Merlin’s Colin Morgan, who was recently acclaimed for his performance in Brian Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre. Both are widely praised.
Allam offers an unconventional interpretation of Salter – he plays it quieter than the part has previously been portrayed. He’s “not at all imposing: hunched and hangdog, shuffling and sheepish,” writes Cavendish. “There’s something smart about this; it’s as if Salter is giving a performance of humility through which poke sharp blades of threat and residual menace.”
Curtis calls his performance “a slow, seedy descent into moral horror”, while Tripney admires the way he “maintains his softly spoken, avuncular manner even as he reveals his character’s selfishness and ambivalence”, and Crompton thinks he tackles the part “brilliantly, as a slightly wheedling, bemused narcissist”.
Morgan, meanwhile, has a different challenge – playing three different people, who all look alike. And, according to most, he manages it magnificently – “outstanding” for Akbar, “dazzling” for Curtis, and “utterly riveting” for Crompton.
“Morgan has an eerie, newly hatched freshness about him,” adds Cavendish, who goes on to say that as the first Bernard, Morgan is “openly vulnerable” at times, and “impassive but seething” at others. Then, the Telegraph critic writes, he creates “a sense of identicality and difference when the older, ‘originating’ version of Bernard appears – damaged, deeper-voiced – and then a third iteration, pointedly and sweetly untouched by paternal interference.”
The play is. Almost two decades on from its premiere, Churchill’s hour-long episode still has a thoroughly thought-provoking power, raising questions about genetics, parenthood, identity and a lot more besides.
The critics have more concerns about Findlay’s production. Allam and Morgan supply expectedly excellent performances, but Clachan’s domestic design doesn’t quite give Churchill’s play the platform it needs. It’s the reason why the reviews mostly range from three to four stars. If only Lukowski’s five-star write-up for Time Out could be cloned 10 times over.