Review - The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre
The world of The Phlebotomist feels at once futuristic and entirely contemporary as writer Ella Road and director Sam Yates delve into issues of discrimination, privilege and class with a Black Mirror lens.
The UK has rolled out a programme of blood testing where every genetic trait from disease to behaviour is reflected by a single number from 1 to 10. Each rating is a unique survival statistic, and thus ‘high raters’ are afforded the best possibilities in life, from jobs to romantic partners.
Bea (Jade Anouka) is one of the medics who conducts these tests. She is a comfortable 7.1 and when she falls in love with Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne), an impressive 8.9, their future seems set to be far brighter than the past Bea is trying to forget.
Anouka gives a strong performance as Bea. Within her two-hour performance, she manages to maintain the essence of the character, whilst showing an unmistakable change as Bea sees an opportunity to fit into this brave new world. Her energy is almost frantic, but the charmingly laid-back Byrne is the perfect foil, and the two have great chemistry as a young couple navigating married life.
Kiza Deen too gives a good performance as Bea’s friend Char, adding a great moment of lightness as she shamelessly krumps to ‘Here Comes The Bride’. But it is not until later in the play when Char begins to show symptoms of Huntington’s disease that her talent is truly realised through a touching portrayal of Char’s degeneration.
Roseanna Vize’s set is a clever feat of design. Essentially a white box with padded walls like those of an asylum, it acts as a blank canvas onto which recordings are projected – interviews and adverts that are snapshots of this eugenic world – and sections are pulled out to reveal the various rooms in Bea and Aaron’s lives.
The political message of the play is by no means ambiguous, and the words “Make our nation great again” were familiar enough to draw a despairing laugh from the audience. There are times when Road can afford to let her message diffuse with more subtlety, and the first act ends on quite a long allegory that feels underdeveloped. Other than this, the play has a good rhythm, which is aided by aggressive lighting (Zoe Spurr) and sound effects (Sinéad Diskin) that jolt the audience between moods and timeframes.
The play toys with some deeply troubling ideas; editing therapy for children, blood thefts, and post-natal abortion. But its impact doesn’t hit until the final scene, Bea sitting on a deserted stage that has been gradually dismantled over the course of the second act. All that is left is a shell of scaffolding, exposing the old abandoned set pieces – the living room, Bea’s office, her cherished Bonsai tree – hidden in plain sight; the incarnations of memory and regret.
Brought to life by an excellent cast and an exciting, modern creative, this political dystopia will leave audiences chilled but undeniably touched.