Review: A Number, Old Vic

Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James deliver stunning performances in a cracking production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Old Vic

“I think it’s funny, I think it’s delightful
‘delightful?'”

After Timothy and Sam West, and John and Lex Shrapnel, Lyndsey Turner’s production of A Number for the Old Vic is actually the first one I’ve seen that didn’t involve a real father and son combo (I wasn’t too fussed about Roger Allam and Colin Morgan at the Bridge a couple of years ago tbh). And possibly with that slight remove of biology, something electric happens to make this the best one I’ve seen yet.

Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play about a father who clones his son has turned out to be one of her most popular (see above) and also one of her most evergreen. Ideas about actual cloning were perhaps more prevalent then, Dolly the Sheep having dominated the discourse but 20 years later, the play has only gained in depth and gravitas, its commentary on parental sin and construction of identity roaring ferociously as ever.

Lennie James plays Salter, a man who is having a difficult conversation with his son Bernard 2, played by Paapa Essiedu. The ‘2’ is important as Bernard 2 has just discovered that there are several clones of him out in the world, copies that his father had made for reasons that soon become clear. But as Salter seeks to reassure him that Bernard 2 is the original, the one whose genetic material was copied, his lies start to crumble and he’s forced to ‘fess up that he is in fact Number 2.  

The next scene then sees Salter meeting Bernard 1, again played by Essiedu, but his reaction is vastly different to that of his sibling. And so different iterations of the father/son relationship are played out, indeed a whole other one ends the play, the damage of the past ultimately unable to be smoothed out by the manipulations of the present. Notions of being a good father honourable but horrifically executed.

Essiedu has the more overtly dramatic role in portraying the clones, so much the same yet so difference and he essays this beautifully, aided by some astonishing quick changes in the blinding flashes of Tim Lutkin’s lighting. But James also does phenomenal work as the slippery Salter, possessing just as many personas as there are clones, if not more. They both master the intricate rhythms of Churchill’s dialogue and find a good deal more humour in there than I’ve seen before. And at a moment when Es Devlin has found her name thrust into the headlines, the enveloping deep red of her apartment set is the perfect setting. Highly recommended. 

Running time: 65 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
A Number is booking at the Old Vic until 19th March

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