Murder. Madness. Mischief. What do these three have in common? Well, simply that they were all part of a magical combination of antics that brought the play A Number to life. The father-sons due played by Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu in the Old Vic flawlessly put together a captivating performance, doing full justice to Caryl Churchill’s superbly written words. In this play she explored the inherent tendency within humans to blame others in a comedic but simultaneously chilling way. This was reflected in the sets unsettling blood-red lights- the only glimpse of colour being that of a portrait of the child. Spotlighting this ironically portrays the uniqueness and diversity of the child, despite the unknown clones. Together, Essiedu and James explore what makes us unique and different, in a world where we become increasingly like-minded. 

But what is a play without those that bring it to life? The actors themselves shone to deliver a coruscating performance. In between the bright flashes, the quick changes delivered by Paapa Essiedu along with the polar changes in emotion work together to enthrall the audience. However, it was both the actors together that helped to deliver a well-rounded performance. What they did was not just let us be part of their performance, it was letting us be part of their journey. A journey of self-discovery, of hate and love, of life and death. When they shook with fear, we shook with them, and when they cried, we cried inside. They managed to channel their emotions from every part of their body, from twitching toes to rapidly blinking eyes.  

Caryl Churchill’s dystopian world is meant to indicate a futuristic, unidealistic world in which things go wrong, where things don’t go as planned. A world full of betrayal by those we’re supposed to trust, both within our family and encompassing society and authority as a whole. Nevertheless, in this way, she portrays what it means to be human, what it means to be flawed. This play demonstrates the inherent tendency within humans of injustice and revenge. In this way, these qualities are present within all characters, the father himself believes these are necessities in a fair world. He believes that murder and madness can be justified in the face of injustice and revenge. He truly believes the age-old proverb that all’s fair in love and war. However, there are many problems associated with these characters, this tunnel-vision included. Nonetheless, the audience is masterfully manipulated to comply with the needs and desires of the characters, because the audience themselves want to. We all are, after all, human. And sometimes, that’s okay.  

John Joe, another audience member, had similar ideas about A Number. He believes ‘The play is full of absolutely fascinating ideas about relationships between nature and nurture, genetics and environment, which I found absolutely fascinating. There were various malign and benign feedback loops between one’s genes and the environment. It's also about the dangers of man playing God.’ I definitely agree with this view, as cloning may be considered to be interfering with what theists believe to be the role of God- producing children. Evidently, in this play, we can see how disastrously wrong this can go. Perhaps humans overestimate their abilities. In a universe of such grandeur, we may be much smaller than we think. Much less significant, possibly, in the past, present and future of the cosmos.  

Integrated in this artfully designed play is comedic relief, so that the tension brought on by both the silence and the screaming is alleviated. The humour in parts of the play is so craftfully formed, I challenge you to try not to laugh. When asked to talk about himself, one of the sons, played by Essiedu decides to come up with an interesting topic- ‘My wife’s ears […] they’re always there.’ Since that was too generalised, he decides to comment that ‘We’ve got 30% of the same genes as lettuce.’ Despite not knowing completely how true that is, it definitely brought the people under the roof of the Old Vic to near-tears with laughter. It made us cry, it made us laugh. What else could it be, but this near-feat of the 21st century- A Number.