A Number – November 2006

Experience: 8/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 17th November 2006

This play deals with the subject of cloning – a wonderfully open area for speculation and exploration, as yet largely untouched by dramatists. (I suspect sci-fi writers have already had a field day.) A father is confronted by three versions of his son – the ideal one, the original, flawed version, and another copy who’d been brought up without knowing his origins. The mother had died in an accident, and the original son had suffered from the loss of his mother, or from his father’s subsequent behaviour, or more likely from both – the father treats his son abominably, leaving him alone for hours on end, presumably beating him badly, and the like. Then the father decides to try and get his original “sweet” son back, to replace the monster he’s now got. So he opts for cloning, and gets back a lovely little baby, who turns out to be a “good” son. The other has been shuffled off into care. Unfortunately, the people doing the experiment, either for scientific research, or because they have to have some spares in case some don’t take, produce around twenty clones of the original, all of them still living. It’s this revelation that the “good” son brings to his father at the start, and the whole story unravels from there.

This production was immeasurably helped by the casting – Timothy West as the father and Sam West as the son. It did make one change of emphasis – when the son asks the father “Are you my father?”, we know the answer – it’s staring us in the face. With other casting, it might be possible to leave even more doubt in the audience’s mind about the relationships going on here. But this is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The set was minimal – a square floor, two chairs, lights that swept back and forth as if “scanning” the characters, and a vast array of test tubes hanging from the ceiling like a modern light fitting. This play is so tightly scripted, that we really don’t want anything too fussy to take attention away from the dialogue. And the performances tonight were excellent. There’s a lot of half-sentences, words tailing off into nothing, that say more than the words could do, and all of this was meat and drink to two such skilled actors. It took me a moment or two to tune in to the accents, but then I found the play almost Pinterish in its intensity and compactness. Not a word is wasted. The three sons are easy to distinguish, and the unfolding relationships are very compelling to watch. It’s a short play – only 50 minutes long – but it packs a lot into a small space. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We did have one distraction the night we went. A lady in a wheelchair was taken ill towards the end, and several people were helping her – it looked like a doctor came down from the side seating to help out. She was taken out, and an ambulance was arriving just as we were leaving the theatre. I hope she was OK. Although it was visible to at least one of the actors, they carried on superbly, and we were able to keep our focus mostly on the play. There was also an appeal at the end for an actors’ charity, so buckets were to the fore on the way out.

I did miss some of the dialogue at times, which is the problem with theatre in the round – they’d put seats at the back of the stage as well this time, so the actors had to keep moving. Overall, though, it was a really good piece of theatre, and raises some interesting questions.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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