A Number Old Vic

Preview: A Number, Old Vic

Preview: A Number, Old Vic

Jenny Booth takes a look at this “thought-provoking, stylish and intense” play


In 1996 when the scientist Ian Wilmutt announced the creation of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, it inspired endless speculation and fantasy. Could you replace a much-loved pet? What if your partner or your child died – could science produce a new one? If you yourself fell gravely ill, could you live again through cloning? Perhaps this new Frankenstein science could genetically manipulate your cells and grow a healthier, happier and effectively immortal version of the self?

It was amid this half-baked intellectual ferment that Caryl Churchill wrote A Number, a concise and superbly crafted play that predates Kazuo Ishiguro’s take on the subject in Never Let Me Go by more than three years, and is equally as searing. Just one hour long, the play takes the audience on a journey of discovery that gradually lays bare the motives of Salter, a man who has cloned his own son. Director Lyndsey Turner has mustered a high quality cast for her spare and compelling Old Vic production. Lennie James [Line Of Duty, Snatch] depicts Salter as a self-justifying narcissist, grinning placatingly as he spins a web of evasion and half-truths to avoid having to acknowledge his own colossal failings as a parent.

But the emotional heart of the production is an outstanding performance by Paapa Essiedu [I May Destroy You, Press], portraying the anger, fear, pain and even the bathos of cloned human beings who discover they are not unique. “A number,” mumbles gentle Bernard 2 in the opening words of the drama, stumbling numbly into his father’s house after discovering that there are “a number” of other men with exact copies of his DNA. Does this mean that he too is just a number?

After a scene change marked with a dazzling flare of light (epileptics, beware!), the audience believes the same two characters are on stage – but slowly comes to realise that Essiedu is now playing Bernard 1, a damaged and violent soul, whom Salter rejected and put into care as a small child. Further layers of Salter’s lies are peeled back. Bernard #1 is determined to make someone pay for the destruction of his identity. The action unfolds swiftly through a series of shocking denouements in a set that, with the exception of one photo, is painted an ominous red – the colour of blood, and danger.

Thought-provoking, stylish and intense, this is a production that commands the audience’s compassion and their absolute attention.

A Number runs at the Old Vic until 19 `March 2022.

For more things to do in London and Surrey, click here.