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
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
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.
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Review - The Phlebotomist - Hampstead Theatre 2019