Review: A Number (Cart/Horse Theatre & The Playwright Project)


The works of Caryl Churchill are featured in this year’s Playwright Project starting with A Number at The Downstage

The Playwright Project is both a celebration of influential playwrights and a showcase for indie theatre companies here in Toronto. This is the third installment since the festival began in 2012. The project brings several theatre companies together to mount selected works from a particular playwright. This year’s choice is Caryl Churchill.

You can find a full list of plays in Mooney’s Cheap Theatre for the Week listing.

Last night, at the The Downstage on the Danforth, I had the pleasure of seeing the opening night of Cart/Horse Theatre’s entry: A Number.

This play is a deceptively simple one-act with a science-fiction premise. Like many great genre stories, it has a very dense and layered subtext. On the surface, the plot concerns the notion of human cloning and its legal and psychological consequences. But Churchill only glances at the mechanics of cloning here; her real interest is in the father/son drama that is sparked by it.

The plot concerns a son’s discovery that he is one of many clones of his father’s first son. He confronts his father, who goes on to confront the original son and a second clone. Tension ensues.

Since it is the same actor playing them (without any costume changes, save for the final scene), it can be a little tricky to follow which of the three sons is being represented on stage. But the unique character traits of each eventually shine forth. That feeling of bewilderment when struggling to understand a person’s identity, though, is a vital part of the experience.

The three sons have their own unique emotional reactions to being one of a number. The original is angry and resentful of his father and the clones. The first clone (second son) is tormented by the notion that he is a copy of someone else and is also terrified that the original son wants to kill him. The second clone (third son) is quite content with his life and finds the idea of being a copy fascinating—even comforting. (In a funny and touching moment, he points out that, on a genetic level, none of us are much different from everyone else anyway.)

This is the big question the play seems to be asking: who and what are we? By showing us three psychologically diverse individuals with identical genetic material, it probes the concept of personality as an individual construct, a consequence of biology and a response to upbringing.

Matthew Gorman’s direction is stark: just two actors, two chairs and minimal movement. The lighting is a bright and even wash. Perhaps this play has been staged more fancifully, but this minimalist aesthetic seems so perfect. Churchill’s text is quick and austere, so theatrical trickery—excessive movement or atmosphere—could ruin it.

With barely any change in costuming, Craig Pike manages to convey three very distinct personalities that bear a subtle resemblance to each other. As he jumps from one son to another, I found myself identifying with each of them.

As the father, Mark Whelan is equally captivating. Even when he behaves in a self-justifying or placating manner, I still feel for him. He shows us a man who is overwhelmed with guilt and struggling to connect.

A Number is a complex piece. It is, for the most part, quite somber, but speckled with genuine humour. It is unsettling, not because of its reference to genetic experimentation, but in its suggestion of how little we understand ourselves despite our technological achievements.

Strangely, I found myself uplifted by the final scene; it suggests that contentment is possible, but it can’t really be shared. It comes from within and is just as intricate and indefinite as the rest of an individual’s personality.

A quick word about the venue: it is below a restaurant and there are frequent dull thuds and the occasional clatter of dishes. Weirdly, they provided an appropriately eerie ambiance for this particular piece. I doubt, however, that they will seem so accommodating to everyone.

This was my first experience of Caryl Churchill and I’m in awe. It is so perfectly structured, so intelligent, so intriguing… I simply can’t wait to experience more of her work. And as for Cart/Horse’s intense production: they handle her text with grace and insight.


  • A Number plays at The Downstage (798 Danforth Avenue) until May 4
  • Showtimes are: Friday April 25, 7PM; Saturday April 26, 1PM; Sunday April 27, 8PM; Thursday May 1, 9PM; Saturday May 3, 3PM; Sunday May 4, 6PM
  • Single tickets are $10 on weeknights and $15 on weekends (multi-show passes are also available).
  • Tickets can be purchased online.

Photo of Mark Whelan and Craig Pike provided by the company