A Number’s script hovers at the borderline of science and psychology, and explores possibilities that technology does not yet offer but are nonetheless quite believable. When a father’s plan goes horribly wrong, his son – who has always believed he is an only child – finds out that he has as many as 20 cloned brothers. All are genetically the same as him; all are the same people. Caryl Churchill’s powerful writing is both brilliant and unsettling.
The production opens just as Bernard has discovered the truth, and what follows is an intense confrontation between son and father about the whys and wherefores of how this situation has come to be. The concept of “designer babies” is already familiar to us, but the script takes this a step further, showing the agony and anger of an individual as he grapples with the reality and the reason for his very existence.
Both actors deliver a powerful and poignant performance. Their stage presence is commendable, and the script is beautifully tight-knit, allowing them to bring genuine intensity to their emotions. The show heads towards a strong climax at the end – though of course, I won’t give it away.
As the father confronts two of his many sons in alternating scenes, another powerful theme emerges: that of nature and nurture. The impact of different surroundings and environments on the two genetically-identical boys is clearly contrasted. It is also interesting to note that both of them return to simple childhood memories and issues as they try to rationalise their crisis. For example, would a father really not pay heed to his son’s need for a bedtime story, just because he knew he had many of the same children?
The only real flaw lay in the staging, and more particularly, the response to the space the play is performed in. Most of the scenes are static, with the father and son sitting facing each other across a table. So if you are on one of the sides of the room (which two-thirds of the audience are), you can only see one of the men’s faces. I felt this did take a bit away from what is otherwise a superbly presented production.
A Number is an invitation to challenge your mind, stretching the boundaries of the possible and the ethically acceptable. Place yourself in the characters’ shoes, and embrace the uncertainty you’d face… what if your entire life is a lie? A fabricated lie engineered by someone who you trusted? If questions like that intrigue you, this is a show worth catching.