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A Number Review: Paapa Essiedu Appears As A Clone On This Eerie Track

The 2002 play by Caryl Churchill reads like a proto-Black Mirror. The movie was written after Dolly, the sheep, and tells the story of a son (Paapa Essiedu) who discovers that he was cloned by a careless doctor from his father’s firstborn (Lennie James). Despite clear dystopia, shrewd revivals of this modern classic focus less on its sci-fi trappings and instead use it as a metaphor for parents’ responsibilities, creating a strange, haunting chamber piece about how little we truly know our flesh and blood.

Churchill’s text remains a gift twenty years after it was written: it is elliptical and eerie, full of half-finished sentences and snippets of savagery amid banality. Director Lyndsey Turner steers it away from its sharper absurdist edges to ground the film. Therefore, the Old Vic production seems more understandable. Essiedu, who has consistently been an outstanding verse speaker, can deliver the dialogue in a pleasing elastic cadence despite the linguistic recurrences.

In his role as Salter, James begins by stating the obvious: “I am your father,” he tells Bernard 1, but that certainty gradually dissipates as more of his lies become evident. Could he be a father if he would abandon his son and start with a copy of the original? Are there not some temptations in the idea of starting over with your children if you could?

The play is constructed from contradictions: like people, numbers are both variables and fixed entities. Within the same sentence, Salter can tell the truth and a lie; the clones are his children and aren’t. The feeling is also reflected in the set design: Es Devlin’s set is naturalistic and uncanny, bringing the action to a lifelike living room bathed in an ominous crimson glow.

Throughout the series, James plays Salter with an intriguing placidity: he is generous and loving with his sons (especially Bernard 1), but he has absent-minded cruelty, as well. In Salter’s case, you never know how much he knows about the clones – whether he is never able to admit everything or if he buried his head in the ground because of guilt.

Although it’s compelling to watch this kind of psychological complexity, it’s hard to get behind James’s sometimes clunky performance as a character that needs to anchor the play. Essiedu, a hugely talented actor, has to play Cain and Abel. As Bernard 2, he is warm and sweet, stuffing his hands into his sleeve and shuffling about in his father’s flat. As Bernard 1, he is fearfully brittle, coiling like a snake. Despite the skill of Essiedu and Turner, the play does not feel like an extended acting exercise but rather a series of exquisite character studies.

However, the production maybe a little too clean for a play of this moral complexity: in fact, Turner seems to wrap up a mysterious final scene neatly. The memory of a Number should linger long after it ends, but instead, it feels snuffed out. At the Old Vic, you can see ‘A Number’ until 19 March.

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