The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre
Like the best dystopias, The Phlebotomist is as much indebted to the past, and present, as it is a concept of the future. Blending vile historic ideas of “genetic” hierarchies – those that are present in everything from the idea of skull size as evidence of criminality to the faux-scientific justifications for genocides and discrimination – with modern-day developments in eugenics and a sprinkling of society’s hyper-health-consciousness, Ella Road’s play is a drastic, if scarily plausible, stone’s throw away from the here and now.
One bloody meet-cute later and phlebotomist Bea (Jade Anouka) and trainee-barrister Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne) are on the road to love, marriage and babies (big question mark) – or, at least, they are after sharing their thankfully compatible blood ratings, a ten-point scale denoting healthiness, both mental and physical. Against a backdrop of societal unrest and the increasingly insidious implementation of the so-called “Criteria”, Bea starts chasing the kind of life she was denied as a child, walking an illegal and morally bankrupt path in order to afford the finer things – you know, like mangoes and tomatoes and a long bath.
Something about the production feels like two versions of the same idea, only with one a lot more interesting than the other. The main narrative – the one focusing on Bea, Aaron and their blood-related marital strife – is supplemented by videos cast across the sterile white panels of Rosanna Vize’s set. Featuring some pretty prominent theatrical names – including Jonjo O’Neill and Lloyd Hutchinson – they wittily do the heavy lifting of the world-creation: news reports, charity ads, dating profiles, viral videos and sinister testimonials for rating-boosting consultations and post-natal abortions. It’s all arguably more compelling than the central story, a richer political play lurking in the same universe, but just off-stage.
Of course, the two strands overlap. And it’s not like the play as presented hasn’t got something to say, be it the undercurrent of class tension, the similarities to the plight of those with “pre-existing conditions” in the US, or even the slightly ham-fisted use of terms like “anti-rate-ist” or “rate-ist” society. But with a pair of leads that don’t necessarily have the requisite chemistry to make a believable couple – despite putting in decent individual performances – in scenes that fall sort of flat when compared to their snappy video counterparts, it feels like the two halves of the satiric drama could do with being swapped around in terms of their prominence.
Image: Marc Brenner
The Phlebotomist is at Hampstead Theatre from 19th March until 20th April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.