Review: A Number

July 9, 2015
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
The Young Vic

This revival of Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play takes place in a sealed glass box, the audience gazing voyeuristically in like scientists observing participants in an experiment. A man and his son (played by real-life father and son John and Lex Shrapnel) are in a state of distress – they have just discovered “a number” of illicit clones have been made of the younger man, sparking an existential crisis: “they have damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity”.

The action is short, sharp and visceral: the father comes face-to-face with three genetically identical versions of his “son”, the bleak backstory of each drip-fed over the 55 minute-long play. Lex does an excellent job portraying three very different men who all share the same face; by turns overwrought, aggressive and banal. As the play jumps from one confrontation to the next, the glass box becomes a mirror, bringing the audience face-to-face with their own clones, begging the question: how unique are any of us?

Popular science fiction has come a long way in the 13 years since the play was first performed (by Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon, no less), and the theme of cloning inevitably lacks the topicality it carried in those days of Dolly the sheep. But as a study of humankind’s unattainable desire to right the wrongs of the past and to raise the “perfect” child, it’s as powerful as ever.

First published in City A.M.