A Number

A Number – The Maria @ Young Vic, until 15 August 2015 (tickets)

Carol Churchill is a playwright that I always feel I should know more about. She writes clever, spiky, experimental theatre and is one of the rare playwrights to critically engage with themes that toy with what some rather snobbishly decry as science-fiction. Her consistency over four decades of writing plays for stage and radio make a strong candidate for the title of ‘Britain’s greatest living playwright’ following the death of Harold Pinter in 2008 and that alone is enough to make her worthy of considerable interest.

Whenever I read a description of her plays, such as the mixing of historical and fictional women in Top Girls, the rhyming verse of Serious Money, using the Putney Debates in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire or the Brechtian Vinegar Tom, I cannot help be fascinated by the striking originality and clarity of her vision. She rarely seems to experiment for its own sake; her plays appear to have a cohesive and clear sense of what they want to be and how they want to achieve it.

A Number is an appealing science-fiction two-hander on cloning that mines the idea of how knowledge of a replicated self can impact on a person’s sense of identity, but with Churchill’s characteristic sharp eye also delves into psychoanalytic ideas around the impact that the parental environment has on the adult self.

The play is performed excellently by father-son duo, John and Lex Shrapnel, and is never less than interesting. It takes the form of a series of intense, tightly-framed duologues between the father and versions of his son. The audience is kept off-kilter by jumps in time between scenes, and a lack of framing to the wider world. We must pick up our cues from the conversation as it unfolds in front of us.

It is doubtless Churchill’s intention to leave you slightly unbalanced and trapped within the Father’s personal unravelling. Initially sympathetic, the revelations across the conversations reveal an ever-more monstrous side to his character, and the havoc wreaked by his choices many years ago echo down the generations to the present day. This is brought out most clearly in the last conversation with a version of his son that was entirely separated from the father. He is the most at peace with the idea of being a clone and is the one who had least closeness to the original family.

Interestingly Churchill determines that this peaceful character finds himself unable to provide an example of something that is entirely personal to himself and separate from a collective experience. It suggest Churchill is hinting that there can be positives alongside the more obviously destructive human reactions. In a future of routine cloning then individuality is eventually entirely bypassed and the world becomes a safer place; for when people share no difference they lose a major motivator for conflict.

Alongside excellent performances is a simple but highly effective set (Tom Scutt, Designer). Enclosed on each side, the audience watch through a one-way mirror (not miles away from Mike Bartlett’s Game at the Almeida earlier this year). This creates the illusion of an endless supply of fathers and clones, as the mirrors bounce the images of each other into an infinite future.

The only criticism is whether the brief 55-minute running time is enough time to do justice to the scene-setting. Whilst there is something to be said for the tightly compressed and controlled world Churchill creates, there is still a sense that not enough information was revealed. The wider context of cloning was not referenced so it was hard to judge whether this was a normal societal reaction and at other times character motivations remained oblique.

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