London feels like it’s in the middle of a slow, covert Caryl Churchill Festival. The National’s revival of Top Girls was followed by the premiere of four short, sharp, splendid plays – Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. – at the Royal Court. Now, the 81-year-old’s 2002 play about cloning, nature and nurture, A Number, is running at the Bridge while Far Away, from 2000, is at the Donmar. The former runs one hour, the latter 40 minutes, but each shows how much thought and tension Churchill can pack into a short space of time.
A Number was written following the creation of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal clone, and Churchill imagines the consequences if similar technology were used on humans without moral consideration. We first meet Salter (a crumpled Roger Allam) and a character called B1 (jittery Colin Morgan), who seems to be his son. B1 has just learned that “a number” of doppelgangers were created from his cells, which leads to the revelation that he was not a natural birth. Salter’s lack of ethics is flagged by the fact that he immediately thinks of financial compensation rather than his offspring’s suffering. He thinks of the clones as “things.”
After a lightning fast change to Lizzie Clachan’s downbeat living room set – and to Morgan’s hairstyle, costume and entire mien – things deepen. Now, Moran is the furiously controlled B2, the biological son whom Salter mistreated, abused and abandoned into care. We learn that later, reformed, Salter had B1 created, and became an exemplary father.
The medical procedures and the means of Salter’s reformation are not explored, much less how he got genetic material from the forsaken B2, which leaves a nagging gap in the narrative. Churchill concentrates instead on the relations between Salter and three versions of his son who are genetically identical but whose personalities have diverged wildly thanks to upbringing.
Polly Findlay’s production is brisk and incisive and features two actors at the top of their game. Roger Allam’s slow reveal of his character’s tarnished soul recalls his performance as the paedophile in David Harrower’s Blackbird in 2006. Morgan manages an almost alchemical transformation between his three characters, all subtly the same but all entirely different. It’s an interesting vocal challenge for both actors too, each locating the characters’ background vocal register in a classless, estuary-inflected everyman accent, at least in the early scenes.
The dialogue is overlapping and fragmented, as the character’s struggle with unfamiliar existential concepts that have upended their respective worldviews. The ending feels somewhat abrupt, leaving us with questions rather than answers, which is surely Churchill’s intention. I won’t give away any more of the play’s surprises except to say that the most daring consequence of the misapplication of technology that Churchill imagines is happiness.
A side benefit of this revival is that it enables me to revisit an old joke. Late in her life, Dolly the sheep suffered from rheumatism so severe it made her swear constantly and vituperatively. In the end, her language got so bad, the scientist who created her threw her off the top of his tenth floor laboratory. He was later charged with making an obscene clone fall.