“You think I wouldn’t know if I was your father?”
This production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Menier Chocolate Factory is a revival of the 2006 production in Sheffield which starred real-life father and son, Timothy West and Samuel West who reappear here with the same director in Jonathan Munby. In order to retain the integrity of the show, the Menier has been reconfigured into the round for the first time ever, something which works so well here, I hope they think about doing it again.
Coming in at 50 minutes without a break, it rips through its central debate of nature versus nurture with a side order of the ethics of cloning as it poses questions about the nature of identity. Salter is a man who, for initially unknown reasons, had his four year old son Bernard cloned. Years later, Bernard discovers that he has a cloned brother and confronts his father, but in doing so discovers that there’s ‘a number’ of the clones and thus the debate begins.
Timothy West is good as the man clinging on to the self-justification of his questionable decision, full of nervous tics but it is Samuel West who is excellent as the three sons, making the distinctions between them all crystal clear and demonstrating exactly where Churchill lies on the issue of whether people with the same genetic identity can have separate identities.
I liked Paul Wills’ starkly utilitarian design, especially the ceiling of test tubes but as with Oliver Fenwick’s lighting (I loved the scanner effect), less is more as the focus is solely on the acting. And whilst it is indeed impeccably acted, I felt there was something ultimately lacking here, a sense of emotion to go with the science. The programme features an interesting interview with the Wests and Munby which really enthused me about the potential of this show, but I must admit to not seeing much of what they talked about. So a most cerebral experience but sadly unsatisfying despite the pleasure in watching father and son revelling in each other’s talent.