A NUMBER plays the Bridge Theatre until March 14. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Interesting, slim, multi-viewpointed cloning play strengthened by acting and weakened by presentation

“There was a son”

There has been much written about the ethics and morals of cloning, which is all very headline-grabbing but also very academic.  Caryl Churchill’s play attempts to move away from the headlines towards the human, investigating instead the emotional costs of the process, by looking at real people. The show places the process some time in the past in order to examine the after- effects upon one instigator (a father) and three results of the process – his cloned sons- all of whom express a different reaction to the news of their unnatural birth.

At first there is some rather bewildered humour as we get to grips with just what the situation is and what is going on. However, the humour quickly fades and the interactions darken between “father” and the three son-copies that we see come to the fore.

It’s a hugely interesting play. At each scene’s end we are a little more disorientated. We are left to piece together the fragments of information we overhear.  The unconventional structure is interesting but ultimately not very theatrically satisfying.

The production’s biggest pluses are its cast. Roger Allam is highly watchable as the achingly ordinary, guilt-riddled, failed father; although we feel some sympathy for him at his incompetence there are hidden murky depths here. It’s fascinating to watch his character use the sons’ questions and suppositions as building blocks to create answers that do not appear to be the truth, at each turn hypocritically assuring each one that they were the special one (“You were just what I wanted”). It feels that between the drink-induced memory loss, the procrastination and self-pity, there is more that he is hiding than he is sharing.

Colin Morgan, as each of the three “copy” sons, innocent victims of a process instigated by the “father”, is obliged to do some fast changing, and gives three very different characterisations – representing potential different responses to the facts, and as such these all work well.

A couple of disappointments – the sets are distracting, especially after each reconfiguration- they take away focus from the actors ( and so I wonder if this show really needs sets at all?) ; we spend a long time in blackout between scenes (covered by some rather melodramatic loud music) to allow reconfiguration of the set (as well as for Colin Morgan to change character, I understand that need). What also disappointed me was that the staging was very remote. I was in the fifth row but the actors felt very far away. This distances us from engagement in many respects.

As an exploration of the human side to a medical breakthrough, the show allows some interesting discussion, finally reverting to facts to bring us some kind of “reality-check” after the hand-wringing. The figures about how much of our DNA we share were arresting in that respect. However, it felt like a very unfinished conversation- and with a duration of just 60 minutes, a rather slim piece overall.

A NUMBER plays the Bridge Theatre until March 14. Information and tickets here

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