In Review

A Number at the Old Vic: ‘a devastating drama about paternal neglect’

Lyndsey Turner’s staging is ‘ignited’ by Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu

Caryl Churchill’s two-hander A Number is “one of the essential plays” of the century to date, said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. When it premiered in 2002, starring Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig as three iterations of his son, it tapped thrillingly into the debates then raging about cloning. But “long after Dolly the sheep has ceased to bleat” its themes still resonate.

What makes us individual? What’s more important: inheritance or upbringing? The piece is often revived, and each production “glints with different alarms, jokes and sorrows”. At the Old Vic, Lyndsey Turner’s staging is “beautifully rounded” yet “spiky” – and “ignited by magnificent performances” from Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu.

The play seems to have “become richer” with the passage of time, said Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. What was once received as an explicit riff on the possibility of human cloning now reads as “a devastating drama about paternal neglect”.

The father, Salter, has tended to be played as a sinister, patrician figure. In James’s “fine interpretation” he is less powerful and more “geezerish”; we learn that he did what he did in an effort to atone for past mistakes. And Essiedu delivers an astonishing performance as his sons, conveying “love and blame with equal power”, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian.

Effortless in their chemistry, the two actors turn this “strange, elliptical play from a thought experiment into a flesh-and-blood tragedy of family reckoning, revenge and yearning”. It’s a “masterclass” in how to bring a play “blazing to new life”.

Did we really need another revival, though, asked Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. Staging a short two-hander makes logistical and commercial sense post-pandemic. But A Number is seen so often (the last major London production was only two years ago) it’s in danger of becoming “the Educating Rita of the 21st century”.

Presenting Salter as a “flawed family man”, rather than as a “subtly monstrous” and manipulative figure, sets this production apart, but also robs the play of much of its power.

Old Vic, London SE1 (0344-871 7628). Until 19 March

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