Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Theatre review: The Phlebotomist

Ella Road’s imperfect but accomplished debut The Phlebotomist opens with a real piece of news footage, as a doctor is interviewed about genomics, the science of using DNA testing to predict someone’s future health; enthusiastically, she tells us how hospitals keeping records of everyone’s projected physical and mental health would be a boon to the medical profession and help treat problems before they even occur. Over the course of the next two hours we get more footage appearing on the screens with every scene change, this time scripted clips that build the dystopian future Road has created with this technology as its basis: Blood tests aren’t, at first, compulsory, but they become common and increasingly expected. The complex data collected is simplified to a score out of ten, and soon everything from job applications to dating profiles revolves around this, with anyone ranked as “sub” unlikely to get a mortgage, a decent job or a partner who isn’t as predisposed to an early death as they are.

Road tells a more intimate story against this global backdrop, with Jade Anouka as Bea, the titular character, who we meet in the early days of her job providing legally verified DNA scores.

A respectable 7.1 herself, we see her meet, date and eventually marry Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne,) who scores a little under 9. Her friend Char (Cherelle Skeete) isn’t as lucky; her results show that the Huntington's disease that runs in her family will catch up with her in a matter of years. As well as knowing she doesn’t have much healthy time left, releasing her low score will make her unemployable and a pariah, but refusing to divulge it will raise suspicions. She asks Bea to swap her sample with a higher-scoring one, and this ends up becoming a lucrative side-line for her, helping people to fake higher scores without which they’d increasingly become treated as subhuman.

The play arrives at Hampstead Downstairs at a time that makes it feel horribly plausible; on top of the news in general over the last few years highlighting how easily the worst in human nature can become dominant, we’ve also recently had the Facebook scandal demonstrating how cavalier the attitude to other people’s personal data can be. The idea that, beginning with insurance companies and quickly expanding, corporations would use these DNA tests to manage their own risks at the expense of the people the system was meant to help seems almost inevitable. The eventual development that hangs over the story’s ending is quite extreme and designed to shock – something it achieved tonight – but the gradual build towards society embracing eugenics is worryingly easy to believe.

Road’s script is confident and, especially for a first play, feels more fully developed than many that appear at this venue, although it’s not without flaws: The supporting character of hospital porter David, although he has some good scenes and is brought to likeable life by Vincent Ebrahim, is a bit too much of a (borderline patronising) cliché of the wise menial worker. The pacing’s also a bit off, especially when things slow down for a ponderous scene before the interval, but there’s also something of a disconnect between the personal story we see, and the huge global events we learn of: Given how fast the world seems to be becoming the playground of a master race, I could have done with a bit more sense of peril in the characters’ lives. This really is a show I should be able to describe as a thriller, but it’s not quite something that comes across.

It’s still early in the run though, and if the pace picks up some of this sense of urgency might come with it. Sam Yates’ production certainly has the cast to help do it, especially with the stellar Anouka (surely a big break away from Future Dame status) in the lead, she’s one of those actors it’s hard to look away from when she’s on stage. A strong cast and creative team are certainly helping the production’s success and papering over any cracks, but there’s also no doubting that The Phlebotomist also showcases a playwright with real promise.

The Phlebotomist by Ella Road is booking until the 19th of May at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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