|Samuel & Timothy West in A Number|
Review Round-up: Wests Make A Number Count
Date: 6 October 2010
Jonathan Munby's 2006 Sheffield staging of Caryl Churchill's A Number has been revived at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, where it opened to press this week (4 October 2010, previews from 29 September).
Starring father and son Timothy and Samuel West, the play examines the issue of cloning through the characters of a father and cloned sons. Originally staged at the Royal Court in 2002 (when it starred Michael Gambon and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), the current production marks its first major London revival since then.
Set in the near future, Caryl Churchill’s two-hander is structured around the conflict between father and son, addressing the subjects of human cloning, identity and nature versus nurture. This revival brings the Wests together for the first time since English Touring Theatre’s 1997 staging of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, in which Samuel played Hal to Timothy’s Falstaff.
A Number continues at the Menier until 5 November 2010.
Did this story of illegally cloning combined with the Wests' joint appearance leave the critics seeing double?
Terri Paddock on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - "The seating arrangement - as well as the casting of a real-life father and son and other directorial decisions - makes this feel like an entirely different, and much more intimate, piece than the play’s world premiere production... at the Royal Court in 2002. Though similarly slick and thought-provoking, the enduring ideas left with me by the original centred on the ethical and identity quandaries thrown up by the situation ... With the Wests, the human drama is brought fully to the fore ... The concentrated mood is enhanced by Paul Wills’ simple design – just an armchair and sidetable, a copy of the Daily Mail opened to the puzzle pages, overhung by a grid of test tube stalactites ... The beauty of the play and the production aside, the chance to witness the generational baton being passed – and so adroitly – in this revered family of actors is unmissable."
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - "Churchill reflects on the question of what happens to personal identity in a society where the idea of uniqueness unravels. Her writing evokes the faltering, even inarticulate quality of Salter’s confrontations with his sons. They engage in a morbid dance, manoeuvring around each other and exchanging reflections on guilt, authenticity and duty. Samuel West manages in his three different guises to be pained, sardonic, resentful, brutish and suave. There’s a meaty rawness throughout. Timothy West gives a performance richly furbished with little tics and postural shifts that betray the intimate mechanics of self-justification ... Enigmatic, mournful and under-stated, A Number is a subtly compelling meditation on individuality ... It’s a play for the head rather than the heart... but it will have audiences wrangling at length over the uncomfortable questions it invites."
Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (three stars) "In fragmented, overlapping sentences, a father and son pursue, evade, and circle each other, their versions of the past shifting as they speak. The young man learns that he is a clone of an earlier son, but that that one is dead, though ... he has discovered that the cloning doctor, without the father's knowledge, made 21 more. What such a play needs is a poetic atmosphere ... A Number, however, makes one recall the old criticism of Pinter, that his underwritten characters merely perform actors'-workshop exercises of unmotivated emotion. It's a play that, with its hints of various contentious topics (nature vs nurture, technology vs humanity), is less appealing to audiences than to leader writers and other high-minded people ... Timothy West is a bit too nice for the father ... But Samuel West, as both beloved son and rejected thug ... gives the play some of the quality of ghostly, tugging fingers missing in the text."
Charles Spencer in the Independent (four stars) - "Caryl Churchill’s play lasts less than an hour but packs in more emotion, ideas, and disconcerting strangeness, than many dramatists manage in half a dozen dramas ... Out of a sci-fi scenario which could one day become a real-life possibility, Churchill creates a play that is as emotionally upsetting as it is intellectually and morally profound. But A Number, despite its darkness and echoes of Cain and Abel, is also an unexpectedly optimistic work. Tackling the nature-versus-nurture debate head-on, the dramatist concludes that human beings aren’t just the sum of their genetic parts, and that we aren’t preordained to assume a particular personality and mode of behaviour. Churchill’s spare, confrontational dialogue has a similar power and precision to Pinter at his best, and there isn’t an ounce of surplus fat on the piece. Timothy West plays the father with a mixture of furtive unease, gnawing guilt and a deeply moving vulnerability, both physical and emotional. Meanwhile Samuel West differentiates the three sons with high-definition panache. This is a play, and a production, worth 50 minutes of anyone’s time."
Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) - "Some plays — surreal, quirky, and especially if written by Caryl Churchill — are disastrously annoying in the wrong hands, but life-changing emotional earthquakes when they are done right. This is the latter: a 50-minute grip of the throat ... There is potential for even the cleverest script of this nature to infuriate. But Munby’s cast is special: Timothy West and his real son Sam, actors now of equal stature. Across the bare stage the emotion rises, crackles between them. Sam plays three sons... He hardly needs the changes of jacket in order to convince utterly ... Samuel West’s is a terrific performance, but the old father is at the heart of it. He is all of us in doubt and failure, the eternal faulty parent ... Timothy West, pausing, hunching, and raising those pointed eyebrows in bewilderment and challenge, raises irresistible tears."
Siobhan Murphy in the Metro (four stars) - "Caryl Churchill's coruscating two-hander about the nature of identity is given a jolly of raw humanity in director Jonathan Munby's production, as the actors facing each other as father and son(s) are theatrical dream team Timothy West and his real-life son, Samuel. The faint echoes of each other in their faces and gestures makes this short, sharp tricksy tale of loss, love, betrayal and illegal cloning at times desperately poignant. West Sr, as Salter, is by turns stumblingly apologetic and combatively defiant as the trust about what he instigates 35 years ago is forced out … West Jr has the tough task of portraying both Bernards ... He doesn't distinguish Bernard as much but... looks increasingly unnerved by his newly discovered 'father's' grief, which is both detached and ferocious.
- by Theo Bosanquet & Andrew Girvan
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