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The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre | Review

Jade Anouka (Bea) and Rory Fleck Byrne (Aaron) in the Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre. Photo credit Marc Brenner.
Jade Anouka (Bea) and Rory Fleck Byrne (Aaron) in the Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre. Photo credit Marc Brenner.

Given the socio-political climate at the time of writing (late March 2019), I wonder if a show like The Phlebotomist could have been better timed. There’s been more than a fair share of ‘Project Fear’, and at face value, this play is an extension of it, exploring some (admittedly quite plausible) futuristic society in which genomics plays an extremely extensive role in determining a person’s future prospects. Genomics, for the uninitiated (like yours truly), is about studying groups of genes, as opposed to genetics, which is the study of the functioning and composition of individual genes.

There’s something called the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, about which you may look up as much or as little as you wish. All that is necessary to assume, for the purposes of this show’s narrative, is that within a generation from now, the genomics industry is huge. From a blood sample, enough is known to determine how long people have left to live, more or less, and what they are likely to die of. Genomics can also work out what a person’s mental health will be like in the future, and the likelihood of passing on certain physical and personality traits to their offspring.

This is one of those productions in which the scene changes (or ‘interludes’ as the script calls them) are sometimes even more fascinating than the main storyline, if only because the latter tends to plod along somewhat. Brief video clips are shown, mostly of the negative consequences that arise – one, for example, asserts that there are terminations (of pregnancies) going on because it is discovered that the quality of life of certain babies is not good. But then – and I understand it is a sensitive topic – it’s already possible to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of foetal abnormality.

There are other repercussions that trigger reactions from sections of society at large – each blood sample produces a ‘rating’. The higher the rating, the better a person’s health is and will be in the future. Subsequent blood tests do not, it would seem, make a blind bit of difference: the mechanics are explored only to the extent that it is necessary for the audience to comprehend what is going on, and doesn’t look at, for instance, if a person’s rating would change if someone had cancer when their blood was first taken and had cancer in remission during a subsequent blood test. Such matters are left to patrons’ imaginations.

When Char (Kiza Deen) wanted her rating result removed from the records, in my head I was almost yelling, “GDPR! GDPR!”, but when this (arguably) dystopian society has reached the point where even insurance premiums are at least partly determined by one’s rating, perhaps the ‘right to be forgotten’ is overridden by the need to function in the world. The staging is simple in parts, and ambitious in others, with the stagehands kept busy portraying a front room, a shop fitting room, a workplace, and so on. The central characters are Bea Williams (Jade Anouka) and Aaron Tennyson (Rory Fleck Byrne), who demonstrate some healthy on-stage chemistry. The character development is impressive, if emotionally frustrating: is love stronger than the impact of a bad rating? Or has “ratism” [sic] permeated the relationship irreparably?

I couldn’t quite get why it was necessary for Bea (sometimes it was another character) to change their clothes at the front of the stage whilst an interlude video was playing. I got the feeling that this is a production whose creatives would like to become irrelevant in the fullness of time. For a debut play, this is an excellent effort, and a challenging and engaging production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Bea meets Aaron. He’s intelligent, handsome, makes her laugh and, most importantly, has a high rating on his genetic profile. What’s not to like? Char has two degrees and is on the brink of landing her dream job but her rating threatens it all… In a ratist world where health, wealth and happiness depend on a single blood test – dictating everything from bank loans to dating prospects – phlebotomy reigns supreme. So how far will people go to beat the system?

Ella Road’s debut play is a powerfully provocative vision of a dystopian future, questioning the value we place on one another, whether knowledge really is power, and if love truly can conquer all.

Cast includes Jade Anouka, Rory Fleck Byrne, Kiza Deen, Mark Lambert and Edward Wolstenholme.

Writer Ella Road
Director Sam Yates
Designer Rosanna Vize
Lighting Zoe Spurr
Sound Sinéad Diskin
Video Designer Louise Rhoades-Brown
Movement Michela Meazza
Casting Lucy Hellier

19 MAR – 20 APR 2019
http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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