IN BRIEF Slow-burning drama ignites into a complex battle between cold science and humanity, driven by a magnetic central performance and a strong script
“Wherever there’s a system, people will find a way to cheat it”. So says one of the characters in THE PHLEBOTOMIST, returning to Hampstead theatre after a sellout run last year, now expanded and fully-produced, shortlisted for an Olivier Award and also for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award. Not bad for writer Ella Road’s debut play.
Bea is a phlebotomist (or blood taker), in a future just a few years away where people’s life chances are ruled by their (1 to 10) genetic rating from one single blood test.
Bea’s quirky, a little insecure and a 7.1. She meets and falls for Aaron, who is charming, literary, and a desirable 8.9. They slowly fall for each other. When Bea’s friend Char’s rating test reveals she is developing Huntingdon’s disease, which will ruin her rating, she implores Bea to replace her blood for a better rated sample so that she can continue with her top job.
So begins Bea’s entanglement in the dark world of blood swapping, rapidly becoming used to the extra money. She buys new stuff, gets a bigger flat with Aaron, all is going well. Until the secrets and lies this relationship are built on come to light. Inequalities test them and things start to unravel, spiralling to a devastating conclusion. The near-silent, still coda is both potent and moving.
Personally, I always feel that work based “in the future” creates a sense of distance or “unreality” which is hard to overcome, especially on stage, but here the feelings and emotions are palpable, drawing you in slowly and quietly through act one and then haemorrhaging out in act two. Writer Road’s background as an actor has helped her to produce well-crafted dialogue that works, which the actors use to its fullest. Hooking us with that universal concern about our health, she gets under our skin in a most effective way, as evidenced by the intense concentration of the audience around me. To feel an audience “lean in” to a show is special; but this audience did.
The ingenious modular set design also serves as screens; as they are gradually removed in a metaphor for breakdown, underlining the unease generated. Video projected onto the screens is used to cover scene changes and the scenes, although variable, are mostly effective. Overall the balance of visual elements and dialogue is very successful.
Jade Anouka as Bea is magnetic, giving a vital, detailed and heartfelt portrayal. She makes Bea easy to care about. She and Rory Fleck Byrne (as quiet but simmering Aaron, a good performance but just occasionally lacking vocal projection) are well-matched, both returning from last year’s run. Direction is tight and economical, suited to the material. The show has also expanded well from the small downstairs studio and now feels as if it has fully reached its stage potential. (And, as I suggested previously, it has been optioned for TV.)
Pointing up a whole raft of ideas, from ethics, to responsibility to oneself and the unborn child, self-esteem, of truth and lies, and their ultimate consequences, THE PHLEBOTOMIST is a passionately-written, compelling and unsettling view of an uncertain future world. Book quickly before it sells out. Again.
The Phlebotomist runs at Hampstead Theatre until 20 April. Tickets and more information here