Review: Double Trouble In Caryl Churchill's Clone Classic

A Number, The Old Vic ★★★★☆

Review: Double Trouble In Caryl Churchill's Clone Classic A Number, The Old Vic 4
Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu excel in a play that's short on exposition and long on ethical dilemmas. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Many actors may hesitate to take on roles first played by Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon.

But in A Number, Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu do more than enough to escape the shadows of the future James Bond and Albus Dumbledore.

Caryl Churchill's sci-fi drama was written in 2002, shortly after Dolly the sheep was cloned; that scientific achievement is used as a starting point to examine how far one desperate man would go to have and raise his own son. Bernards 1 and 2 — one a clone, one the abandoned original — both seek answers from their father. Which one of them is more "real"? What makes each "unique"? And what circumstances led to this situation?

James does a thrilling job of portraying the conflicted patriarch torn between his natural and manufactured offspring. Essiedu is utterly convincing as the siblings who are genetically identical but poles apart otherwise. The pair's taut exchanges are engaging, drawing us into a story that doesn't pull its punches, as more and more twists are revealed.

Paapa Essiedu plays both sons in this gripping sci-fi play. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Short on exposition and long on ethical dilemmas, this zippy play intelligently holds the audience's attention tight for just over an hour. Cloning may no longer be the hot topic it was two decades ago but, more than any other time in recent memory, scientific advice is both greatly derided and greatly celebrated, and medical breakthroughs provide divisive discourse.

A Number doesn't provide neat answers, rather it asks us to interrogate our own inner feelings about the topics dissected on stage. If, as the play posits, we have "99% the same genes as any other person (and) 30% the same as a lettuce", what makes you you?

A Number, The Old Vic, tickets £10-£90, until 19 March 2022

Last Updated 02 February 2022