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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Phlebotomist
Hampstead Theatre  Spring 2019

In Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1962) Edward Albee had history professor George deliver a mock attack at geneticist Nick, accusing him of planning a homogenised super-race through a mix of gene manipulation and sterilisation of the 'unfit', eliminating all individuality, creativity and the general messiness that defines humanity.

What Albee said in a three-minute speech takes Ella Road over two hours to dramatise in The Phlebotomist.

She also borrows heavily from Huxley's Brave New World and any number of dystopic science fiction stories. She borrows well, and if you've never heard any of this before, her picture of science being used for radical social engineering is chilling and all-too-possible-seeming.

The Phlebotomist is somewhat less successful in characterisation and plotting, making for an evening whose strengths lie more in what it makes you think about than in what you actually see onstage.

Road imagines a very near future in which every person's individual genome can be extracted from a blood test and used to determine not only what genetic diseases may be present but the person's odds of other ailments and even of likely behaviour patterns.

Moreover, this information has been reduced to a simple 1-to-10 score that is used to define the person in every way, from employment opportunities (Why hire someone likely to be sick?) through access to medical care (Why bother saving someone of little worth?), to what is chillingly called 'post-natal abortion' (Why saddle parents with the burden of a newborn child unlikely to succeed?).

The play is built around a couple who meet cute and eventually marry, while experiencing a linear catalogue of encounters with the new world order.

One is a lab blood technician, who learns more about other people than it is really comfortable to know, and who later gets involved in the black market selling of top-rated blood samples to those afraid of scoring low.

The other lives in the shadow of a faked high rating and the fear of exposure. And when the fraud is uncovered, they face the question of what to do with the potentially inferior baby on the way.

You can sense from that summary the linear checklist nature of the plot, with the couple moved from one issue to another in a somewhat mechanical way.

More problematical is the way that the characters have been written as symbols and abstracts more than as people, so that director Sam Yates and actors Jade Anouka and Rory Fleck Byrne (and the supporting cast) have trouble making us care about, or even believe in them.

The whole nature of the play, in being more interested in the issues, draws us away from the characters. And some of the most impressive elements in the physical production – a series of projected sequences ranging from a dating video through news reports and advertisements for beat-the-system services to testimonials from those pleased to have chosen sterilisation or ridding themselves of a baby – also move our attention from people to ideas, while being literally bigger than anyone onstage.

The strongest part of The Phlebotomist is the least original, the scary prospect of abused science. The play's weaknesses all lie in the new-ish ways Ella Road dresses the idea in story and characters.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Phlebotomist - Hampstead Theatre 2019