The audience is left to piece together through the ensuing dialogues how the Britain portrayed in The Phlebotomist has come to assess individuals on a standard genetic ratings system. This takes everything that makes up you – intelligence, personality, appearance, susceptibility to disease – from a blood test, and squeezes it into a number from 0 to 10. This single number dictates entire lives. Who you date, where you live, what you do as a job.
This world is seen through the eyes of Bea, a happy-go-lucky south London phlebotomist – that is, a nurse who extracts blood – pluckily played by Jade Anouka (Fisherman’s Friends, Cleaning Up). She has collided her trolley of samples with the man of her dreams, Aaron Tennyson (Rory Fleck Byrne, King Charles III) a high-rating City boy who seduces both Bea and the audience with his gentle Irish lilt, high cheekbones and lofty recitations of Alfred Lord Tennyson (yes, he is related).
Road’s creation reads like a hybrid of Arthur Miller and Black Mirror. The show interrogates how Western career-orientated norms of ‘happiness’ and ‘success’, coupled with an obsession with using data and scoring systems to judge individuals, attempt to absorb the impact of advances in science and genetics. As Bea and Aaron’s relationship progresses, the world gently slides into eugenic dystopia. Footage floods the walls during transitions, going from comic online dating profiles (‘I’m a 5 but mum says I’ve got a lovely smile’) to ominous news bulletins of citizens murdered for their high-ranking blood, or non-profit adverts for post-natal abortion of children rated below 3.
Although this is a play of serious ideas, Road is never overly reverential to her subject-matter. Bea and best-friend Char (Kiza Deen) spontaneously beat-box a weirdly catchy version of ‘Here Comes the Bride’ while trying on wedding dresses. Much to the chagrin of the haughty shop assistant. In a world driven by the race to the top, moments of messing around become all the more important.
But this does not last. The wider world bleeds into Bea and Aaron’s married life, with Bea slowly seduced by society’s materialistic values of perfection. Director Sam Yates (Glengarry Glen Ross) uses the illusionary nature of theatre to compliment the action and its artifice. Actors change costume in front of the audience, while the crisp white panels of the back wall slowly disintegrate to reveal offstage sets and stage-hands. In tandem, secrets are revealed, creating fatal rifts in what would otherwise have been a perfect relationship.
As advancements in de-coding individual human genomes continue, Road asks an important question: is it really better to have the knowledge so-called ‘progress’ brings, or to live in blissful ignorance? But another question is why this ratings system was thought necessary by the government in the first place. Road’s avoidance of concretely answering the latter question – thrust as we are into the middle of this scenario – undermines our ability to take the former question seriously. In the back of our head remains the question: how would this ever actually happen?
|What||The Phlebotomist, Hampstead Theatre Review|
|Where||Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Swiss Cottage (underground)|
19 Mar 19 – 20 Apr 19, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|