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Review

Theatre review: A Life Twice Given

Image credit: Sheila Burnett

This family drama about a couple who challenge God’s authority by cloning their deceased son has some enjoyable and moving moments, but fails to humanise the conflict at its heart.

A Life Twice Given is based on a novel by David Daniel, who explored his own fantasy of cloning his firstborn, David, after his death at the age of seven. The story has been adapted for the stage by playwright Gail Louw, in a production directed by John Burrows.

The play follows a mostly-secular Jewish couple living in rural Virginia, David (Johnny Neal) and Lisa (Natalia Campbell), who lose their young son David (Damian Reyes-Fox) in a car accident. While Lisa grieves, David quietly plots to replace his lost child with a clone, having had the foresight to scrape and preserve skin cells from his dying son’s ear.

When he finally shares his plan with his wife, Lisa is appropriately horrified, insisting that they accept their loss and move on to have more children “the old-fashioned way”. Unfortunately for Lisa, David’s plan is already set in motion; he has the approval of a sympathetic rabbi who advises that “man was intended to be God’s partner in creation”. After rejecting David’s plans twice, Lisa relents when he takes her to meet a morally ambiguous academic in Prague, who uses both rational and otherworldly arguments – suggesting that Young David’s spirit is wandering, desiring a second chance at life – to convince her to carry a clone. The pushy academic is also portrayed by Reyes-Fox, decked out in spectacles, overcoat, and enjoyable accent, hinting at the possibility that Young David’s spirit is not so much wandering lost as much as sitting at the table opposite Lisa, prodding her towards agreement.

Reyes-Fox delivers convincing performances as three different characters, handling David 2’s discovery of his origins with a burst of pain and anger at his parents’ selfishness which never spills into overacting.

There are some amusing moments, particularly Lisa’s incredulity when she discovers that David took cells from his son’s ear (Did he cut off his ear? Did he store it in his wallet?), and the playful dance breaks performed by Reyes-Fox between scenes. The play also has its moments of clumsiness: an extended discussion between David and his son about new worms being regenerated from damaged bodies is as subtle as a brick through a window; Young David’s twin brother Noah vanishes halfway through the play never to be mentioned again; and the slightly wonky projections should probably have been abandoned in favour of a true black box.

A Life Twice Given could be accused of being regressive; it appears to conclude that technology cannot be harnessed to cheat God’s plans and the malach hamavet. However, the complications faced by David 2 and his parents in the play’s final moments could just as legitimately be blamed on the hurried adoption of technology before it is fit for purpose; given the growing international pushback against tech bros and their ‘move fast and break things’ culture, this interpretation feels more relevant and satisfying.

Despite intentions to explore the clash of deep-set religious tradition with biotechnology empowering humans to ‘play God’, A Life Twice Given does not plunge into the emotional stakes of this debate with the depth we should expect from a drama. Numerous references to ‘tradition’ unavoidably bring to mind Fiddler on the Roof: the gold standard for theatrical depictions of conflict between traditional Jewish life and the exciting possibilities offered by the modern world (a conflict that tears Tevye and his family apart). In A Life Twice Given, however, David and Lisa exchange familiar arguments in the cloning debate, and in spite of the emotive context of a lost child, the conflict never felt truly personal.

A Life Twice Given is performed at London's Gatehouse, Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, Kent’s Astor Community Theatre, and Brighton’s Rialto Theatre. Tickets from £16.

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