Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol (3-14 July)
What makes you, you? If you suddenly discovered you had an identical twin, would it matter? What about an artificial clone? 19 clones, even? Caryl Churchill's 2002 drama is definitely a play about ideas. About philosophy, even. The writing is strange: intense – lines are short, sentences trail off, characters finish each other's thoughts or change direction mid flow. A young man discovers that he is not a unique individual: there are dozens of clone copies of him walking around. An older man, his father, is less than open about how this came about. The doctors must have taken genetic material without permission when he was a child. They should sue. No, actually he paid to have a clone made of a previous child who died when he was very young. No...
The father, off-guard, refers to the clones as "things": the son says it's no different from finding out he's one of a set of twins or quadruplets. He's fine with it. But then, in full view of the audience, he goes to a mirror (the stage is full of mirrors), slowly brushes his hair, adjusts his shirt and switches to the role of the original son – not dead after all, and subtly different from the copy: nasty, scary, psychotic. Another onion skin falls away; the father's story changes again. For a moment, it looks as if we are going to get mired in an abstract debate. Is the first son bad and the copy good because of how they were treated or because of their genes? Could the father, being the unique person he is, have acted differently? But then there's a new scene, another subtle change of costume, and a third clone – a buttoned-up, conventional, rather boring maths teacher. And suddenly we're into the realms of comedy, as the father tries to find something – anything – which this person with a completely different life might have in common with his other two sons. ("I like blue socks," says the teacher, desperately.)
Yes, it’s a debate: about identity, genetics and the ethics of cloning (it was first produced when the papers were still full of Dolly The Sheep). But it's also a family tragedy, a study of four characters for whom an abstract question has become terribly personal. Jonathan Mulquin (who we last saw expiring melodramatically in the BOVTS musical ‘Hard Times’) is incredibly convincing in the triple role. He's particularly good in the opening scene, where both men reassure each other that it's quite all right, it's good to have these things out in the open, everything is just the same as it was before they knew, while their faces and their eyes say differently. Alan Coveney (familiar from a string of supporting roles at SATTF) is understated, compelling, every inch the middle-aged, widowed father, simultaneously racked by guilt and endlessly self-justifying.
Intense, thought-provoking, challenging – a two-hander that runs barely an hour on a tiny stage – this is as concentrated a 60 minutes as I can remember. (Andrew Rilstone)
Copyright Andrew Rilstone 2012