Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Individuality is always the final consolation. You are who you are, they say, and nobody can take that away from you.
But Salter, the millennial mad scientist of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, seemingly has taken that away. He has defeated distinctiveness; allowing his dead son to be cloned ‘a number’ of times to give him opportunities to correct his parental errors. The play first arrived when Dolly the Sheep was still fresh in newscasters’ minds, but thematically, it could have come from the pen of Mary Shelley.
Salter is visited by three iterations of his son Bernard, one by one. The Bernards are played by Lex Shrapnel, and Salter by Lex’s real-life father John Shrapnel. Not that the original 2002 Royal Court performances with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig would have been lacking, but in a play about fatherly neglect, there is extra frisson gained from an actual father/son duo.
The perfectly-named Shrapnels both break into different identities between scenes; their spoken lines also splintering into the fragmentary and nonsensical.
An anxious Bernard 2 discovers he is one of a number of Bernards, and quizzes a blustering Salter, full of reassurances that this was all a mistake for which the doctors will be sued. An apoplectic Bernard 1 confronts a remorseful Salter and threatens to kill Bernard 2. And there is chirpy Michael – not really a Bernard at all, but in Salter’s sad estimation, still a depressing specimen lacking individuality.
Each confrontation unfolds behind one-way glass in a set designed by Tom Scutt to resemble a police interrogation room. There are few clear truths wrung out of Salter. in his motives and explanations, he is at least as ‘plural’ as his cloned sons.” And in this encased, embryonic space, it feels any narrative can birth and develop. The spectacle is fearsomely unpredictable and brief — and like the cloner-general Salter, you could go back for more.
A Number runs until 15 August at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ. Tickets £10-£19.50. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.