Theatre review: A Number

The Edinburgh International Science Festival has impacted on theatre significantly this year, with major productions connected to it at the Traverse, by Grid Iron/Lung Ha/Lyceum at the zoo, and this one, on the Lyceum stage. Caryl Churchill's short play (just under an hour), first staged at the Royal Court in 2002, is presented in conjunction with nightly pre-show discussions around the theme of identity.

A Number

A Number ****

Royal Lyceum Theatre

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The 35-year-old Bernard has just discovered he’s one of “a number”, part of an experiment in cloning by a renegade doctor who has since passed away.

Bernard is a placid, hesitant man who must nevertheless confront his father, Salter, in an attempt to find out the truth about what happened: is he the original, or a copy? And what about “the others”?

Churchill’s tense two-hander, elegantly directed by Zinnie Harris, bristles with questions: what is uniqueness? what constitutes the self? what is a person worth? Brian Ferguson (Black Watch, Anything That Gives Off Light) gives an able, agile performance as three “like but not identical” Bernards, opposite Peter Forbes (The James Plays) as the father who is gradually forced to reveal his own failings to himself and his son(s).

Fred Meller’s clever set - a replicating series of rooms, domestic but devoid of homeliness, where the wallpaper patterns resemble interwoven DNA strands - becomes the crucible for a series of taut exchanges, punctuated by bursts of sound designed by Michael John McCarthy, while the dramatic consequences of these conversations plays out off stage.

There is a danger that A Number is a play about an issue, in which the characters and story exist only to serve the ideas. But it is richer and more subtle than that, and Harris draws this out, always returning our focus to flawed human beings. It is Salter who emerges as the damaged soul of the play, a man who made a mess of fatherhood and decided to use science to buy a second chance. At first determined to avoid responsibility, he then finds he can’t rest until he has understood the implications of the events he put in motion.

What begins as a play about the ethics of cloning opens up a much richer and more fruitful set of questions about nature and nurture, good and bad parenting, the familial legacies of both genetics and behaviour, and the extent to which one’s actions are inescapably determined by a mixture of the two.

Until 15 April