By Neil Durham
WORTH A LOOK?: *****
WHEN?: Saturday 29 January (matinee), opens 4 February runs to 19 March 2022
5 scenes. 2 actors. 65 minutes. A father. 3 clones of his son.
- Read on for reasons including how spellbinding the stars of TV’s The Walking Dead and I May Destroy You are
There are multiple challenges in Caryl Churchill’s 2002 2-hander and we should know because we’ve seen it 3 times in 7 years. The most recent in 2020 at the Bridge starring Roger Allam and Colin Morgan.
But we’ve never seen it performed as exquisitely as this.
It’s perhaps an unfair comparison because, while we often find much of Churchill’s work incomprehensible (Escaped Alone, Royal Court), it always rewards after repeat viewings and A Number is probably the most successful of all the plays by the author we’ve seen.
Paapa Essiedu may be familiar to you from the extraordinary monsta-winning I May Destroy You and here he plays 3 clones very differently.
We are in a near future London. Bernard 1 scares Bernard 2 and 3rd clone Matthew Black is played so differently to be almost unrecognisable.
This is a personal project for Lennie James, the star of TV’s The Walking Dead as he explains in the programme that he grew up in care for a large chunk of his childhood.
Here he plays failed father Salter and it’s a sign of just how brilliantly the material is handled here that while it is very dark there are real laughs exploited by the cast which are seized on by the enthusiastic audience here.
The final scene is perhaps the funniest. Salter is amazed by how happy American maths teacher Matthew Black is. Black of course hasn’t been parented by Salter despite sharing his genes.
Essiedu who hasn’t appeared on stage since 2018 and 2019’s Pinter at the Pinter project is especially funny when failing to explain what makes him tick, much to Salter’s annoyance, and observing that man shares 30 per cent of his genes with a lettuce.
His Bernard 2 is especially chilling and we learn how the character treated his dog who had to be put down after biting a girl is a symptom of how he was parented by the self-absorbed Salter.
Essiedu’s Bernard 1 is struggling with his identity but is more rounded and easier to empathise with as we ponder his predicament: how does it feel to know that there are multiple clones of you walking the earth? Would you want to meet them? What would they be like? Why would your father want to recreate his son? How does it feel to know that you are not the original version of you?
Es Devlin’s boxed set is brilliant in its simplicity. Everything is red bar a picture of, we presume, young Bernard. Director Lyndsey Turner (Aristocrats, Donmar) doesn’t overcomplicate things with a neat switch from Salter’s front room for the 1st 4 scenes to a red-dominated art gallery for its 5th climax.
Churchill’s script is spare and sparse with Essiedu and James frequently talking over each other, notoriously hard to do, and it is only when Essiedu’s 3rd clone appears that his effusive speaking style and warmth radiates in contrast to the characters we have met here previously.
The number? 5 stars.
- Picture by Manuel Harlan via Facebook courtesy Old Vic Tickets
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