Written in 2002, A Number is often described as Caryl Churchill’s ‘cloning’ play, but it’s so much more than that. It’s as kaleidoscopic as it is philosophical. 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 that roots huge questions in a series of human encounters and does all of this in less than an hour.
It begins with a discombobulating revelation. A young man is told by his father that he is not unique, as he believed, but rather one of a number of clones. The play then introduces us to a second clone, a darker, harder version. They look identical, but life has shaped them differently. This opens up further questions about nature and nurture, about what makes us the people we are.
In previous productions these characters have been played by father-and-son pairings: Samuel and Timothy West in 2006 in at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, Lex and the late John Shrapnel at London’s Young Vic in 2015. Polly Findlay’s production casts Colin Morgan opposite Roger Allam and places the play in a domestic frame.
In attempting to replace one dead son, Allam’s Salter inadvertently ended up creating numerous iterations of his lost offspring. He’s faced with the consequences of his actions as he’s visited by three versions in a kind of twisted Christmas Carol. Morgan (who, almost too perfectly, recently starred in All My Sons at the Old Vic) plays all the sons. The first two are young men trying to make sense of themselves and their place in the world; the third is the only one who seems reconciled to his predicament.
Allam maintains his softly spoken, avuncular manner even as he reveals his character’s selfishness and ambivalence, his cruelty. Morgan marks each of his characters apart. They wear the same face, but they are different and distinct. He uses body language, manner and accent to emphasise this, in a way that is technically impressive, but also dilutes the sense of the uncanny that runs through the play.
The same is true, to an extent, of Lizzie Clachan’s design. The play takes place in a living room with net curtains, a leather sofa and a trio of pine nesting tables. With each scene shift, the room shifts too, so that we’re seeing it from a different angle.
Clachan also designed the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Churchill’s Far Away and she is clearly something of a magician when it comes to building worlds for these plays, but 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, dampening its disquieting power.