“Like father, like son” would be the most obvious cliché to invoke when encountering a production the two leads of which are played by father and son. But when the father and son in question are Timothy and Samuel West, and the play is Caryl Churchill’s A Number, that line could not be further from the truth.
To start with, the play delves into issues of cloning as well as into the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. Viewers are confronted with complex, probing questions about the nature of the self and the politics of duplication. For those more inclined to academia, this play feels like a creative manifestation of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s theories on Simulations and Simulacra.
Although not as intellectual as other studies addressing the issue of cloning, A Number reaches fearlessly into the heart-churning depths of the emotional spectrum. Rather than looking at the subject from a pseudo-scientific perspective, we see the effect cloning has on a father and son relationship. And it is this personal touch that makes the play electric.
But the relationship between father and son is not only explored thematically. The real life father/son duo also has implications on the performance as a whole. From the moment the play opens Timothy West steals the show, with his unnervingly natural speech, charismatic facial expressions and eyes that can blaze or, equally, look utterly lost. He has a face made for theatre, a face that demands to be stared at and absorbed. Sam West, by contrast, is rather blander – perhaps appropriately so for a cloned figure, but he does not manage to engross the viewer as much. His vocation is clear and he is a good-looking chap but he has none of the coarse facial charm that makes his father so compelling to watch.
But even with the rift in facial expressiveness, I, along with the rest of the audience, found myself darting my head back and forth as if their exchange of dialogue were a ping pong match. So despite Sam West’s not-so-amazing acting face, his affinity for acting and reacting is as pitch-perfect as his father’s, keeping the viewer completely engrossed throughout.
A Number is a powerful, wholesome and inspiring piece of theatre, the kind I have not enjoyed in a long time. This coupled with the fact that it’s less than an hour long leaving plenty of time for a good supper, makes for a uniquely satisfying night out on the town. Book soon. There’s a reason this play sold out on London’s West End.
A Number runs at the Fugard Theatre 4 – 29 October 2011.