The Bridge Theatre is having far greater success with revivals than it has with new plays, and no problem attracting talented cast and crew to star in them. Both of its immersive Shakespeare productions – Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – have been excellent, while big productions are on the programme for later in the year including wunder-director Marianne Elliott’s version of They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. First though, the Bridge joins both the National Theatre and, as of last week, the Donmar Warehouse in celebrating the work of Caryl Churchill with a short but superb performance of A Number.
It’s notable that two theatres have chosen to stage One Act pieces that, unusually in our era of three-hour-plus marathons, stand alone allowing audiences to be well on their way home by 8.30pm. Far Away at just 45-minutes practically feels over before it has even begun, while here at the Bridge, A Number is just an hour long. Perhaps surprisingly given ticket prices of up to £55, nothing else is scheduled alongside it, with both venues choosing to allow the singular work to speak for itself. It may not feel like value for money based on time spent in the auditorium, but in this case Churchill’s play is definitely small but mighty.
Yet, her work can have a marmite quality, creating quite divisive effects on audiences, so much of the time either you get it or you don’t. But A Number is one of her most straightforward pieces, a fairly simple narrative about a family discovering their eldest son has been cloaned. While the science-fiction surface is an examination of the effects of science on society, a premise Churchill uses to think about the apocalyptic nature of man’s own self-destructive impulses, A Number is really about lies. Across just five scenes, the writer explores the nature of deceit as a father (Salter) betrays his sons in several different ways as information about the true circumstances of their birth and early life is drip-fed to both men and the audience.
It is a clever and well executed premise, one designed to wrong-foot the audience at every turn, opening with an affectionate conversation between father and son taking place soon after the latter has discovered that clones exist. This first scene suggests a terrible miscarriage of justice in which an unknown other has effectively stolen cells from the boy and used them to make unauthorised replicas now living openly and blindly in the world, unaware of each other’s existence. Nothing about this early interaction is suspicious and it seems that Churchill’s intention may be to examine the faceless demands of scientific progress that harvest humanity’s innocence for nefarious purposes.
But that is only half the story and it soon becomes apparent in Polly Findlay’s thriller-like staging that nothing is quite what it seems in this household. A similar tactic occurs in Far Away with book-ended scenes set in a familiar domestic normality that hides (and lies about) the seamier activities beneath the surface, where the corruption of innocence is a major theme. The same occurs in A Number as the son referred to as B2 is forced to know more of his father’s choices as well as the existence of his duplicates which has terrible consequences.
Findlay quite effectively uses a square-shaped rotating set to explore the play’s themes with each new scene set at a 90 degree angle to the one before. In doing so, the audience sees every perspective on the single room in which the entire piece is set, and crucially, each of the four walls that provide the limitations to this domestic sphere in which Salter has maintained a bounded span of control for some years. Designed by Lizzie Clachan the room is exceptionally normal, a living room / diner filled with soft furnishings, family photos and some tiger prints on the wall, all warmed by a bar fire, and unlike previous adaptations that veered towards the clinical, this is a domesticated tragedy in progress. Churchill is interested in the casual monstrousness that lurks beneath the chintzy surface of suburbia, the banality or perhaps more appropriately the thoughtlessness of evil.
Findlay and Clachan’s rotating set does two important things, it changes the audience’s perspective as each new scene brings further revelation that build into a clearer picture of the people it concerns. So by the end of the play we have seen the room and the circumstances of family life from every angle. But it also reinforces the much discussed effect of cloning in which the created being is the same but different. Salter is asked by each of his children about comparisons with their brothers, and we see they are quite different personalities in the same form. And so it is with the rotated set, what we see in each scene is the same room from a different perspective, creating an increasingly disorientating effect as the story unfolds.
Findlay’s control of the tone is particular impressive, there is something unnerving about the scientific discussions being had in this bland and unexpected environment in the first scene, yet the affectionate relationship between the men seems genuine, encouraging us to feel concerned that their rights have somehow been violated. Over time, Findlay changes the temperature introducing darker notes that build into something far more sinister as the result of the initial revelation is felt across the play. As each new slant is revealed, the mood shifts with it, so worry turns to desperation, anger and foreboding as Churchill slowly and often unceremoniously reveals one crucial revelation in each scene. The return of the room to its original position in scene five is a reset in every sense, with what now seems so clearly a cycle of hope and destruction ominously about to begin again.
At the centre of A Number is the ambiguous figure of Salter, a man who seems racked with concern for the pain his sons newly endure and whose initial instincts are to comfort while demanding legal justice for the misuse of his son’s DNA. Yet, it is never entirely clear whether Salter is telling the truth or why he tells the specific lies he chooses, so many he can barely keep track of them; which son is the original, the fate of his wife, his knowledge of the cloning process and the exact chronology of his son’s childhood are all subject to interpretation as he continues to give deliberately evasive responses. He appears to lack any genuine remorse for his mendacity and there are also suggestions of cruelty to B1 whose night terrors he ignores, a child that Salter decides is not up to scratch by the age of four and simply replaces with an improved copy.
Yet, Salter is also sympathetic, a father desperate for a second chance to put things right – an outcome at the start of the play he appears to have achieved as he and B2 express a mutual love for one another and happy life to date. Salter’s later confrontation with his original son B1 leads to revelations of grief at the death of his wife and a loneliness that haunts the play as a father grapples with his own positive legacy, a need to create a good relationship with his son to guarantee his own future. The momentary pauses between the five scenes which leaves Salter alone in each room configuration offer a contemplative pause, a man isolated and perhaps even abandoned with little left to lose.
The pairing of Roger Allam and Colin Morgan is a savvy one, two dedicated and respected theatre actors who have found a valuable chemistry well ahead of this week’s press night. Allam easily connects with the many conflicting layers within Salter’s character, he is at once a man trying to find a good outcome from past mistakes and someone who lies with astonishing ease. Under pressure, Allam’s Salter runs on, saying almost anything to dilute the confrontation and his culpability for the existence of multiple children, Allam ever treading that fine line between selfishness and parental love by mixing half-truths and outright lies with genuine emotion and bewilderment.
The audience never quite knows if Salter is a good man led astray by grief and a good sales pitch decades before, selling the soul of his child to answer some deep call of fatherhood, or a mercenary man using a disarming scattiness, a failure to remember exact details to malevolently excuse himself from blame while perhaps willfully bringing about a wider destruction to rid himself of the problem. Allam is careful to offer both interpretations within his performance, that keeps the audience guessing about his real motives.
As his antagonist throughout, Colin Morgan offers an equally layered presentation of character, rising to the challenge of playing three different versions of the same man. In each of the five scenes, Morgan alternates between personas, changing accents from two variations of London to play B1 and B2 as each man separately confronts Salter. And it is a play that wastes no time, with Churchill introducing the characters post-revelation requiring the actors to begin mid-argument, already at a pitch of exasperation and confusion.
Each man is given distinction by Morgan with B2 the nervy innocent, trying to accept the new-found truth about his cloned-selves and, at first, trusting his father’s explanation with a credulousness that is increasingly naive. The confounded approach hardens in Morgan’s creation of B1 who introduces an important note of latent violence, of the possibility of physical harm as he intimidates the father who betrayed him. Each of the characters is given two scenes so Morgan finds consistency in his characterisation, switching between them relatively quickly as the responses of both men to their father creates further tension once the brothers become aware of each other’s existence. The subtle hints of the Cain and Abel struggle in Churchill’s work and man’s desire to be somehow individually unique are brilliantly elucidate by Morgan in a varied and gripping performance.
A Number packs a lot of themes, meaning and ideas into just an hour of stage time in a production that asks big questions about scientific progress, human regeneration, parenting and legacy. Churchill is concerned here with the mysteries lurking beneath a sheen of civilisation and how quickly things unravel once the veneer is shattered to reveal further deceits. With performances by two very fine stage actors, Findlay’s production asks us to look beyond the simple dichotomy of nature or nature because the advent of medical interventions into the reproductive process, designer babies and genetic modification leaves us wondering whether human individuality exists at all, and how do we control who we become?