Theatre Review - A Number

CARYL Churchill’s multi-layered play about cloning, parental failure and identity premiered at the Royal Court in 2002, but as Lyndsey Turner’s thrilling revival proves, A Number continues to resonate 20 years later.

Thirty-five-year-old Bernard (Paapa Essiedu) has just discovered he has several siblings. He confronts his father Salter (Lennie James) who, we learn, cloned his son only to discover that several more versions had been made without his permission.

Slater claims he replicated Bernard from his original son’s cells after the four-year-old boy died with his mother in a car crash. “A speck”, “the scraping of cells” is all it took to “share raw materials”. However, the number of copies is unknown. While Bernard wonders what it would be like to meet another version of himself, Salter thinks there may be compensation to be had.

In the second scene, we meet another Bernard who, it turns out is actually Bernard 1. This Bernard remembers crying out in the night and never being comforted by his father. We then discover that Salter gave away his son, aged two, when his mother died by throwing herself under a train. Bernard 1 was brought up in care; Bernard 2 was raised by Salter.

Churchill interrogates notions of parenthood, the family and what truly binds us. I imagine A Number will move people in different ways. For some, it will be about the ethics of genetic engineering, others will focus on the father-son relationship, while Churchill also gives sibling rivalry a whole new twist.

In the final scene of this 65-minute drama, Salter meets another son, Michael Black (also Essiedu). He’s an American maths teacher with three children who has grown up happy, until then blissfully unaware of his genetic father, suggesting the power of nurture over nature. Salter played God with Bernard 1 and 2, but for Michael it’s as if he never existed.

A Number asks profound questions but offers no easy answers. What is assured are terrific performances from Essiedu and James.

Until March 19

Originally published in the Camden New Journal