A Number,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,

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Reviewed by Mark Brown

CARYL Churchill is one of the most fascinating and, to my mind, frustrating of modern English playwrights. Resolutely modernist, radically socialist and feminist, her oeuvre includes undeniable classics (such as Top Girls and Cloud 9) and works in which her desire to express her politics clashes uncomfortably with her avant-garde aesthetics (as in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?, which had an excellently acted production at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow recently).

The frustration with the Lyceum's staging of her 2002 play A Number is not with the writing, but with the exasperatingly short run (of only a little over a week). Directed with tremendous focus by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris and designed with a painterly sparseness by Fred Meller, it is an utterly compelling hour of theatre.

Set in an unspecified, but none-too-distant, future, the drama entails meetings between Salter (a man who had his son, Bernard, cloned) and three of the young men affected by his intervention in reproductive technology. Salter (a brilliantly riven Peter Forbes) attempts to negotiate the boundary between his own guilt and the culpability of the scientists who created more clones of his child than was intended.

Brian Ferguson gives a performance (or, rather, performances) of deep emotional intelligence as Bernard 1 (the original son), Bernard 2 (his intended clone) and Michael Black, one of the additional clones. The play is quite extraordinary in its capacity to deal both with the millennia-old debate regarding nature and nurture, while also turning to the emotional implications of biologically identical people being created, not by nature, but by science.

A tragedy wrapped in a captivating emotional, psychological and political enigma, A Number is Churchill at the top of her theatrical game. Arguably the best production of David Greig's period as director of the Lyceum, it demands, appropriately enough, to be revived without alteration.