CARYL Churchill is surely one of this country’s leading playwrights, her best known plays probably being Top Girls, about the rise of women to the top of business and politics, written during the Thatcher era, and Serious Money, about stock market traders in the same Thatcher era or monetarism, and premiered in 1987, the year of the stock market crash. Top Girls famously has an all female cast, and Serious Money is mainly written in rhyming couplets, yet Churchill still manages to communicate directly with the audience, and to get her own socialist views across.
A Number was first performed, as were many of her plays, at the Royal Court Theatre, the location of which has always seemed ironic in itself, such a bastion of modern theatre, from John Osborne in the 50s and 60s to Mark Ravenhill, Joe Penhall et al in the last decade of the last century and the first of this, set at the end of King’s Road the natural habitat of most of the cast of Made in Chelsea. The number of the title can be taken to mean many things: we are shown a number of sons of the same father, a number of copied sons, copied from one original; our tickets only had a number on them, with no row or area, just a number; and in this production, because of the effect of so many mirrors, we see many copies of the two actors.
The narrative tells of a man whose wife kills herself when their son is only two years old, and the man decides to have his son cloned, to give him a new chance of bringing him up in a better way. Unbeknown to the man, the cloners also produce further copies of the son, and during the play we meet the original son and two of the clones, giving the father, and us, the chance to see how different they are, and how much influence nurture has had compared with nature, given that they are identical genetically.
The original production was staged reasonably simply, but this new version adds such a wonderful extra depth to the whole story, by setting the action inside a mirrored cube, with the audience outside the cube, looking in, through one-way glass, rather like police in a crime drama observing an interview from a separate room. The actors cannot see us, yet they perform with such honesty and integrity that we completely believe in Salter, the man, played by the incredible John Shrapnel, an original member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, recognisable from so many television and film roles, most famously as Senator Gaius in Gladiator, and most recently Duncan in Branagh’s Manchester Festival Macbeth. His three sons, original and clones, are all played with a similar truth and reality by his own son Lex, which added to the depth of understanding, and playing, of the father-son relationships.
This was not like any other theatrical experience – it was more like eavesdropping on some terrible reality that unfolded right in front of us, just a few feet away on the other side of the glass, in a raw, physical, bare and completely believable way. Our attention was totally held for 90 minutes as we watched the different sons go through the emotions of understanding just what their father had done.
It is no surprise that this production sold out when it opened at the Nuffield in February last year, and did the same at the Young Vic in London. There are only a few more performances left at the Nuffield on its triumphant return, so I urge you to do anything necessary to get a ticket for this genuinely unique production of a very good play, with a designer, Tom Scott, who quite literally thinks outside the box, Michael Longhurst, a director who clearly asks a lot of his cast and holds nothing back, and performances by a father and son which are amongst the best I have ever seen in more than 40 years.