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A Number – Review of Caryl Churchill play at Wychwood

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In 1996, Dolly became world-famous on the day of her birth. For those with a short memory. Dolly was a Scottish sheep that was cloned, well, from what else but another Scottish sheep. The closing raised all kinds of questions but playwright Caryl Churchill took her own approach in her 2002 play A Number.
The two-hander takes place somewhere in England, sometime in the future. Salter is an awkward, uncommunicative, and emotionally almost paralyzed man, around sixty years old. When we first see him, he is wearing ordinary rumpled clothes but has a tie on. He has difficulty uttering a word. The other man on the stage is genetically the son of Salter.
Salter’s wife was killed in a car accident when his son Bernard was two. Bernard died when he was four and a grieving father had his son cloned and the young man talking with Salter is a copy, he is Bernard (B2). He is not the only copy of the dead child but one of “a number” of clones that were produced by the scientists.
Salter, whose emotional incompetence is severe enough to qualify him as a robot, is upset about the large number of copies made of his “original” son whom he thought dead but who is now confronting him about the fact that he is not the only son. Salter’s reaction is to threaten to sue for millions for the excessive number copies made of his son.
The original Bernard, (B1), appears and he wants to kill the other Bernards. The two Bernards and Michael Black may be clones but they are very different people. Not surprisingly, the father does not have the emotional depth or strength to make a connection with his three children, let alone the “number” of others who are out there.
The question of “who am I” is unanswerable on many levels and Churchill does not try to answer it or delve into the philosophical issues raised by cloning. That would have been the short route to producing a bore. But the four characters she has created do make an intriguing and mysterious quartet in a futuristic world.
Salter is played by Nora McLellan in man’s clothing and she gives a superb performance as the lost sheep of a father. The clones are played by M. John Kennedy who transforms himself into the three characters seamlessly and very ably.
The set by Cat Haywood represents a kitchen and sitting area of a modest house or apartment and is perfectly apt. Director Dahlia Katz has a perfect take on the play by emphasizing the characters of the father and the sons and she gets splendid performances from the two actors.
Dolly was cloned more than twenty years ago and cloning has been off the front pages for a long time. This futuristic play however is still worth seeing for Churchill’s imaginative reception of what might happen if someone like Salter is faced with three of his sons in the future especially if it is on stage.