A Number

In one sense, this Lyceum revival of Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play is exactly the “dynamic two-hander” described in the programme: the only actors on stage are Peter Forbes, as regret-filled father Salter, and Brian Ferguson as his son Bernard. Yet, as we move from one scene to the next—with an audience jump-inducing flare of light—we come to realise that Ferguson is actually switching between three characters, Bernard and two clones.

genuinely engaging revival of an intelligently written, emotionally authentic drama

His challenge, therefore, is to show both the commonalities between three genetically identical men and the very real differences in temperament that have arisen out of their very different lives. Much of the groundwork for this is, of course, in Churchill’s script, first performed just a few years after scientists at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh had pushed cloning from long-established science fiction trope into reality in the form of Dolly the Sheep. Nevertheless, while Bernard 1 and Bernard 2 are both angry—specifically at their father—it’s the subtle nuances of Ferguson’s performance that distinguishes them as individuals.

The exact cloning process that creates Bernard 2 and Michael Black, one of “a number” of clones which the scientists had created—unknown to Salter—is left sufficiently vague beyond mention of a few scraped cells. The emphasis here, of course, is on consequences, not least the unravelling of parental lies and the undermining of their sense of self. Bernard 1, who was put into care by a drunken farther unable to cope, is understandably angry that he was essentially “replaced”. Bernard 2, cloned some four years later, now feels like a copy created for a second try at parenthood.

Given the scope of the play, many of the more brutal consequences arising from the discovery of the cloning happen away from Fred Meller’s starkly empty set; director (and fellow playwright) Zinnie Harris opts for a minimalist environment—bare room, just two wooden chairs—where atmosphere is expressed as much through Ben Ormerod’s strong lighting as Churchill’s script. This is most clear in the final encounter, between a humbled, emotionally drained Salter and previously unknown clone Michael Black, a happily married father of three children whose optimism is underscored by the warm sunshine bathing a room full of children’s toys.

Like many of science fiction’s most important female writers who have also explored themes around cloning, Churchill’s authorial view on “nature versus nurture” debate appears to fall on the side of the latter; that, while our genetic inheritance is an important part of who we are, it’s by no means the defining factor—as emphatically underscored in this genuinely engaging revival of an intelligently written, emotionally authentic drama that’s far from being a clone itself. 

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

“Have you met the others?”

Bernard has spent 35 years believing he’s an only child, one of a kind, until he learns the chilling truth. He’s one of “a number” of clones resulting from a nefarious genetic experiment. When he confronts his father, Salter, questions of identity and morality result in an explosive exchange with dire consequences.

A Number showcases Caryl Churchill’s consummate skill in creating brilliantly compelling drama bristling with ideas, and is directed by another accomplished playwright, Zinnie Harris. This dynamic two-hander is the starting point for a powerful debate about the boundaries and ethics of science.

A Number is presented in partnership with the Edinburgh International Science Festival alongside a series of talks which will take place before the show.

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