Justin Hosking and Phil Roberts in A Number | The Husk Theatre

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about A Number is not that cloning can happen to anyone, but that a father can simply ask for a do-over. Playwright Caryl Churchill sweeps the audience along on a story that rejects the typical cloning plot possibilities, turning instead towards questions of the definition of family, family love, and just how we are supposed to define love when it’s possible to reinvent the person you care about.

A Number opens with the news that Salter’s son, Brendan (Phil Roberts and Justin Hosking respectively), is actually one of a number of people with the same genes. These clones remain indeterminate, ghostly creatures that threaten to invade upon the tiny world of this pair at any moment. Trouble arises in the form of another son, with a past that doesn’t quite gel with the thus-sanitised storyline. As A Number delves into the complex labrythinth of identity, second chances, paternity and love, Churchill’s whip-smart writing forces the viewer to confront the more complex elements of human morality, with every line so perfectly weighted with meaning it almost feels like food for the soul.

Peformances by Hosking and Roberts are measured and detailed. Roberts in particular inhabits his character with a compelling mixture of frailty, emotional distance and a curious twist of moral ambiguity. He is at once human and a very distant, almost mythical figure in this almost-alternate reality. Every tweak of his facial features is carefully calculated to convey a deeper meaning behind what is being said and what Salter actually means.

Churchill’s writing gives the actors ample time to engage with their characters, but the intricate nature of the questions raised within this play effectively shield the audience from the ability to truly empathise with the humanity of either character’s situation. Churchill seems so intent on higher questions of life and identity that interest in the characters themselves is reserved to a more functional analysis of their role in a wider web of morality.

It’s hard, in some elements, to be too judgmental of A Number’s characters. Churchill writes them as unmistakably fallible people, with so many twists and turns in moral understanding that their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides can never be clear-cut. It is ultimately up to the actors to bring Churchill’s intricate and nuanced dialogue to life.

For a play that runs under an hour, it’s an excellent example of Churchill’s brilliant ability to inject meaning into every element of a play without overwhelming her audience with ideas.

The details: A Number plays The Theatre Husk in Northcote until September 4. Tickets via Trybooking.com.