The Freedom of Information Act is the bad guy at the top of this lean, mean, 40-minute two-hander, as awkward everyman Bernard (Brian Ferguson) finds out he isn’t an only child as he has always assumed, but actually one of ‘a number’ of identical clones created from the nicked DNA of his dad’s previous son. With the cat out of the medical records bag, Bernard’s repentant father, Salter (Peter Forbes), confronts three of these bio-engineered versions of his offspring, with very different results.
Churchill’s script pulls no punches. The action and the dialogue canters along at a breathless pace, but remains both intellectually coherent when presenting the ethical conundrums of individuality and genetic manipulation, and mercilessly focused when exploring the very particular emotional repercussions for this unconventional father and son(s).
Designer Fred Meller’s set bears uncomfortable resemblance to a rodent cage, with it’s stark, removable prefab walls, bare lightbulbs and some enjoyably tongue-in-cheek double-helix print wallpaper. It isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to picture faceless scientists in white coats and clipboards hovering somewhere in the shadows above the actors’ heads, continually nudging the two flailing men into unhappy confrontation.
Unfortunately, in this production it feels more like the actors are trapped on a metaphorical hamster-wheel. Plunging straight into the emotional heart of the action and never letting-up, Churchill’s script demands the audience form an instant connection with the plight of Salter and Son; however, Ferguson and Forbes often seem to be fighting to get through their lines, abandoning this search for empathy on the way.
Forbes has the slightly easier task here, playing one character throughout and given space to develop Salter as a convincingly misguided father figure. Ferguson on the other hand struggles to bring the three versions of Bernard to life, showing little of the kind of uncanny, minute shifts in character that stimulate the audience’s thinking about the nuances in upbringing that resulted in these three very different yet totally identical men.
Zinnie Harris’ direction is efficient but unexciting. Even as the action swerves from Salter having a nerve-soothing cuppa with his preferred son, to him sitting in the room with another clone in the aftermath of an altogether more violent confrontation, the exchanges onstage remain oddly and unconvincingly atonal. The sound design, by the usually dependable Michael John McCarthy, is notable mainly for throwing the first two rows of the auditorium into cardiac arrest at the nerve-shredding drone of noise during every scene-change.
Presented as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, A Number is an interesting way to illustrate the ethical dilemmas that can come part and parcel with well-meaning scientific advances. But as a piece of theatre, the intellectual intrigue of Churchill’s script struggles to find footing in this underdeveloped and ultimately forgettable production.
A Number is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until April 15th. For more details, click here.