Woah. Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Young Vic is a powerful, punchy piece of theatre. This play may only be an hour long but it is an intriguing premise, brilliantly executed.
A grieving father had his dead son cloned when he was young. But now, 30 years later, the clone uncovers this secret and the status quo unravels.
Only this play isn’t really about cloning. Not really. Such is the brilliance in the writing that this is more a springboard to investigate far more enduring themes, such as nature vs. nurture, individual responsibility, grief, parental selflessness vs selfishness, and the complexity of human motivations.
The clone is now an adult male and no different from you and me at all. Nothing debilitating or obvious that would single him out as anything unusual. But this thunderbolt, this revelation, knocks him off his feet, causing a crisis of identity that his father, it is increasingly apparent, is emotionally unequipped to handle.
And what of the father? A man whose treasured son died in a car crash when he was just in his infancy, along with his wife? What on earth made him clone his son? We can’t cheat death – and what does that tell his adult cloned son now? That he wasn’t really wanted, just a recreation of the son that had gone before?
The play is a two-hander and the roles of father and son are played quite brilliantly by real-life father and son John and Lex Shrapnel. Neither character is entirely blameless – and neither character ever really has our sympathy. It’s a constantly shifting dynamic as one revelation leads to another and consequences spiral out of control.
The piece is tightly directed by Michael Longhurst and production design comes from Tom Scutt. Much like Game at the Almeida, the stage is an enclosed box, a severely restricted location that emphasis the claustrophobic tension in the writing.
And this box is stripped back, empty except for a chair. A stark, simple design that emphasises the timelessness of the subjects up for discussion. And as the lights fall, the walls of the box become mirrors, causing the audience to face their own reflection.
It’s an attempt to force the audience to confront the scary possibility of coming face to face with their own doppelganger, their own clone even. This device hammers home the main theme a little too much – a subtler approach would have been more welcome – but this is a small gripe in what is an excellent revival of a challenging and fascinating play.
Young Vic Theatre, London to August 15, 2015
- Lex Shrapnel and John Shrapnel in A Number at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson.
- John Shrapnel and Lex Shrapnel in A Number at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson