“If that’s me over there, who am I?” asks a character in Caryl Churchill’s A Number. In this short play about cloning, it is a pertinent question.
Jonathan Munby’s revival of Churchill’s 2002 two-handed drama is given the personal touch by the casting of a real-life father and son, Timothy and Samuel West, in the roles of Salter and his son Bernard.
Salter is a man whose personal tragedy led him to make a decision that will have far reaching consequences for his own life and that of many others. Due to circumstances slowly revealed as the play progresses, Salter had his four-year-old son cloned. Now, 35 years later, the second Bernard, who has been brought up believing himself to be Salter’s only son, discovers that not only is he a clone, but that due to an over-enthusiastic doctor, he is one of a number – hence the title – of others in his own image.
The story that unfolds on the Menier Chocolate Factory stage is a harrowing, dark tale that sends shivers down the spine, not least because modern science makes it entirely plausible. Only our ethics are holding us back from going down a road that it would be impossible to turn back from.
As Salter, West senior shows us how easily that decision could be made, how a potent emotional mix of grief, regret and a desire to have another shot at life can culminate in a man making this horrific choice.
In playing three of Salter’s sons – the original Bernard and two clones – Samuel West shows his versatility as he deftly changes from one character to the other, making their personality differences apparent despite their identical – other than clothing – appearances. In this he adeptly demonstrates the nature versus nurture debate that is intrinsic to Churchill’s play. If two people are born with the same genetic make-up, can they still forge separate identities due to the circumstances in which they are brought up? The question gives an added poignancy to the eventual fates of the three clones.
Played out on a stage that is bare but for a single armchair, Munby’s production is darkened by Olly Fox’s ominous music and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting. Above the actors, a ceiling of test tubes is occasionally illuminated, as a reminder of what Salter has done, and a portent of what could be our future, if we let it.