A Number is the first play by Caryl Churchill that I have actually seen in a theatre. I have read several others but never before witnessed the words coming to life in front of an audience. And her words are fascinating. A Number is a 50 minute one-act play with two actors in constant conversation, and the structure of her writing is based on that ability of people to keep a conversation lively whilst rarely finishing a sentence. This means you have to keep close attention to what’s going on. I can see a link to Pinter, who was also adept at conversational plays, but with Pinter the pauses gave you time to take it in. There aren’t many opportunities to sit and reflect in this play.
And I think that’s one of the problems. Without the ability to reflect on what’s going on you end up somewhere in the range between “not quite sure what happened there” and “what on earth was all that about”. In our post show discussion, Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed on at least two aspects of what actually happened in the story, let alone any philosophical interpretations one might apply to it.
Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the story – or at least the story as far as I understand it. Son finds out that he is not unique genetically as there are “a number” of people who were cloned from the same cells at or around the time of his birth. The extent to which Father is complicit in this is one area in which Mrs C and I differ. Son (let’s call him Son A) doesn’t cope with this very well and visits Son B and puts the frighteners on him. Eventually Son A kills Son B. Father and Son C meet – it is revealed that Son B killed himself. (Another area in which Mrs C and I disagree). Son C is well balanced, unlike Son A. Any further dramatic tension comes from how you think the characters react to the situation in which they find themselves.
And that’s the second problem. Delightfully, (at first sight) the Menier has restructured itself so as to present this play in the round (well in the square really). The trouble with our seats (A1 & A2 bought on the first day available) was that they were directly behind the armchair on which one of the two characters is often seated. That meant that for many of the conversations we could not see the reaction of the character facing away from us. Despite being so close to the stage it was a real distancing effect. It may be that others got more from the production because of its staging but, I have to say, we got less. I think it would have worked better on a traditional platform stage at one end of the room.
It goes without saying that real life father and son Timothy and Samuel West gave excellent performances and that the play is definitely thought provoking. But in the end I think it promised more than it delivered.
So on reflection it was a great relief that we also decided to book to see Doon MacKichan’s one-woman-show Primadoona 90 minutes later. This apparently has gone down a storm in Edinburgh earlier this year and is an hour’s tour-de-force encapsulating Doon’s life from award-winning tv comedienne to divorcee and mother of a very sick child. Her comic timing is immaculate; her story is moving and hilarious. We came away from the day feeling that she had got to the heart of the human condition much more directly than Caryl Churchill.