The week in theatre: A Number; The Visit; Alone in Berlin – review

Bridge; Olivier, London; Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Cloned siblings cast fleeting shadows in a vivid Caryl Churchill revival, while Lesley Manville dazzles in an unwieldy revenge drama

I have rarely seen a play – other than Hamlet – that delivered such varied productions. In the past 18 years I have watched three stagings of A Number – yet never felt that the experience was merely duplicated, or cloned. Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play is its own proof: it shows the difficulty of establishing one authentic version – of anything.

A man in his 60s meets, one by one, several of his sons. But can they all be regarded as sons when, as it rapidly emerges, some of them are clones? Is one more “real” than the others? And what has caused one young man to be anxious, one vicious, one serenely unfussed by the knowledge that he is not singular?

It was startling to see cloning on stage in 2002: Churchill has been unfailingly prescient in spotting vital debates, and her treatment of the nature-versus-nurture argument has always looked incisive. Yet A Number is vivid for other reasons. Where better than on stage to explore how we really distinguish between one person and another – by appearance, manner or the details of a personal biography? Is it possible to detect the secret life of an individual? And what an alluring opportunity this two-hander offers for actors. One man (could this in the future be reimagined with women?) needs strenuous versatility as he plays all the sons; the other has to chronicle gradual, shaded changes.

Roger Allam and Colin Morgan seize these opportunities to wonderful effect. As the sons, Morgan, whose television life as Merlin has not been wasted, is magically transforming: slouching, perturbed and grubby; razor-like and dangerous; neat, benign and eager. Meanwhile, the glorious Roger Allam – the more glorious because he wears his splendour not openly but tucked into the sleeve of his crumpled cardigan – dips into the voice he uses as Inspector Thursday in Endeavour and becomes, with the tiniest rearrangement of his round shoulders, concerned, opportunistic, sad, sinister.

Polly Findlay’s production tilts the play towards the father: Allam lingers solo between scenes, while Morgan gets kitted out for his next incarnation. It is an emphatic interpretation, with explosive noises and atonal runs on the piano between episodes, and a detailed naturalistic design by Lizzie Clachan, which swivels to show the same house – lace curtains, leather sofa, luridly coloured tiger paintings – from different angles. This underlining of variation, and the stress on dramatic effect, brings some clarity of mood and plot to a shadowed play, full of dark twists. Too much so, for me: I missed the eerie ambiguity of the first staging by Stephen Daldry, minimal in décor and acting (Daniel Craig seemed merely to clench his jaw to differentiate between sons), and the subtle argument of Jonathan Munby’s production which, brilliantly casting real-life father and son Timothy and Samuel West, suggested that these sons were not perhaps more different from each other than were their father’s different selves through a lifetime. What a tribute to Churchill that her work flashes out with these different lights.

Anyone interested in the way the reputation of some first-class actors – Roger Allam is one of them – seems to simmer for years before boiling up, helped by telly, should pay a visit to The Visit where the marvel that is Lesley Manville lights up the stage in Tony Kushner’s new version of the 1956 play by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. She is not instinctive casting as the play’s lead: a multi-married moneybags who returns to her rundown home town to wreak vengeance on the man who abandoned her pregnant as a teenager. It seems to be made for a belter; Manville is naturally subtle, glinting, exquisitely multifaceted. She is, though, magnetic as an artificial creature who has made herself, physically, financially and emotionally. She moves like a clockwork doll on prosthetic (don’t ask) legs, one made from china and painted with boys flying kites. She squeals like a vixen. When she rasps out her former lover’s name she seems to take a bite out of the air. She manages to slip from feral to soft focus and make something poignant out of a love song.

Lesley Manville with Garrick Hagon in The Visit.
Lesley Manville with Garrick Hagon in The Visit. Photograph: Johan Persson

What a shame that she is trapped in an evening that is both flabby and over-explicit. No one would expect the author of Angels in America to come up with a trim adaptation, but she might have hoped for something more incisive than this three-and-a-half-hour junket. Transplanting the action from a ramshackle European town to a derelict midwestern hole called Slurry, Kushner bludgeons home the play’s anti-consumerist message – bribed with the promise of money, the townsfolk go mad for shiny shoes and radios – while Jeremy Herrin’s production is in turn static and unwieldy, as if driven not by plot but by stage machinery. Characters are often stuck side by side, talking and unmoving; the opening scene features chaps from the hokey town lined up at the railway station as if waiting to burst into song. Vicki Mortimer’s design – massive iron staircases, huge forest – certainly dominates the famously difficult vastness of the Olivier, but it demands that you watch it doing so. The stage is wreathed in smoke (that’s the best bit); it revolves; it rises and sinks. It seems to be pleading with its audience that something is happening. Not enough is.

There is so much that is so right about the ideas behind Alistair Beaton’s adaptation of Alone in Berlin. Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel is an exceptional work based on a true story. In Berlin in 1940 a quiet couple are driven by the death of their son and the bullying of their Nazi neighbours to an ingenious act of defiance. They write anonymous protest messages on postcards, that most modest of forms, and distribute them in public places. Zealous citizens hand the cards in and, though at first the Gestapo is baffled – a thread of the plot follows their own internal power struggles – they eventually identify the couple, capture and kill them. The end is utterly bleak – the messages have been almost entirely disregarded and their writers are dead – and yet there is an inspirational belief in the worth of resistance for its own sake. It is a story well worth staging: it can stir.

Denis Conway Jessica Walker and Charlotte Emmerson in Alone in Berlin.
Denis Conway Jessica Walker and Charlotte Emmerson in Alone in Berlin. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Not in James Dacre’s production, where good wheezes fizzle out. Terrific to call in Jason Lutes to supply graphics that suggest the black-and-white graininess of woodcuts of the period, but they often sit with uneasy artiness beside the grim humdrum action. Excellent notion to add a harsh cabaret touch with occasional songs, but Beaton’s lyrics are toothless and Orlando Gough’s music warbles decoratively rather than darkly. The action trails, and fails to capture the punchiness of the postcard idea. I can envisage a remake of this production that would work. This doesn’t.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Number
★★★
The Visit ★★
Alone in Berlin ★★

A Number is at Bridge theatre, London, until 14 March

The Visit is at the Olivier, National Theatre, London, until 13 May

Alone in Berlin is at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until 28 February

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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