BWW Review: A NUMBER, Bridge Theatre
Back in 2002, when Caryl Churchill's A Number premièred at the Royal Court, genetics was the hot new topic. The Human Genome Project was on the verge of being completed and a few years earlier Dolly the sheep had been cloned, leading to very real discussions about whether or not humans could end up being cloned. It was still science fiction, of course, as demonstrated a few years later when South Korean claims of harvesting viable stem cells from a cloned human embryo were found to be false. Nonetheless, Churchill's play featuring a father and his cloned sons must have captured the imagination of audiences.
Now revived at the Bridge Theatre with Roger Allam as Salter and Colin Morgan as B1, B2, and Michael, we are more likely to hear about genetics in terms of gene therapy or people's misguided attempts to discover their ancestry. However the question of ethics in science and medicine is always relevant, and the themes of identity, trust, and family are absolutely universal.
Just over an hour long in total, the story plays out across five fairly swift (but densely packed) scenes between Salter and either B1, B2 or Michael. From the beginning it's clear that Salter is holding things back, which causes the truth to slowly unravel as we bear witness to these exchanges; there is a lot to consider in such a short amount of time, though brief inter-scene moments give both us and Salter a pause for thought.
It may deal with some heavy topics, but there is a surprising amount of humour in there, enhanced by the innate sense of comedy that both Allam and Morgan possess - they also have great chemistry and bounce off one another well, making any sections of overlapping dialogue (Churchill's hallmark) seem incredibly natural.
What also makes this production memorable is Lizzie Clachan's set design; each of the first four scenes gives us a different aspect of the living room, before coming physically - and metaphorically - full circle by the final section. It's a clever idea that also continues to show off the theatre's capabilities. Polly Findlay's direction is understated, allowing us to focus intently on the story and travel across the moral minefield that is human cloning.
Though the science may not be the talking point it was when A Number made its debut earlier this century, it is ultimately a story of humanity being pushed to extremes and working out how best to cope. With fine performances from Colin Morgan and Roger Allam, this play is well worth adding to your to see list.
Picture credit: Johan Persson