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Theatre Review The perils of carrying our deficiencies into any ‘brave new world’

A Number
Old Vic

CLONING has often been thought a subject best left for sci-fi, but at the turn of the 21st century — when Caryl Churchill’s play A Number was first staged — the prospect of humans being cloned was raised after a Finnish-Dorset sheep named Dolly became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

Now 20 years later, and the politics of our DNA has taken centre stage again with companies like 23andMe offering a full breakdown of your genetic makeup from a saliva sample. As if Silicon Valley doesn’t have enough of our data.

But if A Number is on one level a warning sign about the drawbacks of human cloning, it is many other things beside. It’s also a timeless analysis of nature vs nurture, and the complex relationship between a father and son.

This production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, sees Es Devlin’s set awash with red — a signifier of blood perhaps?

Broken into five short scenes, we first see father Salter (Lennie James), at his red apartment, speaking with his amicable cloned son Bernard 2 (Paapa Essiedu).

Yet the son has clearly found out that he is not only a clone of the original but one of many clones, after the lab made more without consent, and is asking questions.

Salter makes up a story about how his wife and son died in a car crash, and he wanted to bring back his son. But we later learn that the troubled Bernard 1 is alive and well, as he returns to berate his dad for deciding to clone him and hints at his neglectful upbringing.

James, his first major stage role in almost 20 years, is the perfect conflicted Salter. Having placed his original son in care, and apparently acknowledging his failure as a father, he sought to start over by raising a clone.

But now he is forced to face the responsibility of his actions, and has been reduced to a man so racked with guilt he no longer even attempts to defend himself.

Essiedu, of I May Destroy You fame, performs an astonishingly good about-turn in the two vastly different personalities of the two Bernards.

And as if that wasn’t enough, a hilarious final scene where he plays a simple-minded but well-to-do Michael Black, one of the unauthorised clones likely raised by posh foster parents, leaves poor Salter empty of answers.

A Number runs until March 19 2022. Box office: 0344 871 7628, oldvictheatre.com

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