Review: A Number, York Theatre Royal

Son and father: Niall and George Costigan in A Number. Photograph: Anthony Robling
11 May 2014 @ 4.47 pm
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Son and father: Niall and George Costigan in A Number. Photograph: Anthony Robling
Son and father: Niall and George Costigan in A Number. Photographs: Anthony Robling

Review: A Number
Venue: York Theatre Royal Studio, May 9

With technology becoming more and more pervasive we can’t avoid wondering what is it that makes us human. The ghost of human cloning as an unpractised but possible scenario creates new questions, such as which qualities lay at the foundation of our uniqueness? If even human beings can become serially reproducible, how are we going to define ourselves?

Written by cutting-edge playwright Caryl Churchill in 2002, and directed by Juliet Forster, A Number poses a series of deep existential questions to the audience.

Revolving around a broken father-son relationship, A Number takes place in a middle-class living room, enriched by recurring video projections which, starting from Matrix-like binary codes, become closer to organic natural shapes as the play progresses and grows in human depth.

We witness a distressed discussion between father Salter (George Costigan) and son Bernard (Niall Costigan), who has just made a life changing discovery: he’s not the original; he’s the clone of a first son who tragically died at the age of four.

Salter explains how the only way to cope with the pain of that loss was to physically recreate a second chance. Not a new life, a new wife, and a new child, with all the scary unpredictability that scenario entails, but the same child, once again – genetically identical, to make up for past mistakes.

As the play advances, we discover the storyline is much more complex and traumatic, with Salter revealing disturbing fragmented details.

From an original sin, to a number of unoriginal sons: Bernard’s genetic material has been stolen, and many versions of him are now living around the world.

While he suffers from his sense of self being shattered (“If that’s me, how am I?”), Salter ponders how much money value you can attach to your lost uniqueness.

The boundaries the son is struggling with are much more complex than me versus others: it is now about me versus me.

Dynamic: Niall as Bernard, George as Salter
Dynamic: Niall as Bernard, George as Salter

Does being replaceable equal being worthless? Or is that worth related to an attractiveness that make someone more desirable for cloning than others, as the world wants more of them?

A short, intense, and snappy play, in the uncommon form of four acts, A Number is punctuated by Michael Lynch’ video projections and sustained by the flawless, dynamic performances of real father and son George and Niall Costigan.

The play reflects on what actually makes us human: not just genetic material, but relationships, experiences, feelings, dreams and nightmares.

The audience leaves the theatre full of complex questions, but also with the hopeful realisation that we are often unaware of what makes us happy, and taking a step back to look at the humorous side of human fears can be a liberating and empowering act.