Updated: Apr 24, 2019
Hampstead Theatre, London. 19.03.19 - 20.04.19
I love giving blood. For those of us who can, it's an easy thing to do - quick, painless, and there are biscuits. Every so often, a friend will say they'd do it if they were paid. And I think - really? Must we commodify everything? Aren't the health and financial systems entangled enough already, without us having to individually profit from it? Doesn't this open the door even further, to all sorts of commercialised, economically-savvy ideas that seem sensible in theory but are challenging in practice? Wouldn't this make us all a little more selfish, a little less hopeful?
The answer, in Ella Road's Olivier-nominated The Phlebotomist, is an emphatic and miserable "yes". Set only a handful of years from the present, blood testing has evolved into a comprehensive screening system, assessing with a high degree of certainty our long-term health prospects: whether we'll remain fit as a fiddle for fifty years, or whether we're going to develop Parkinson's, dementia, heart disease, Huntington's, cancer, next week, next month, in a year, ten years...
This in itself throws up all sorts of questions. Do we want to know, truly, if we're guaranteed to drop dead in a decade, or if our cards are marked with a harrowing, slow decline into indignity? If fate, genetics, or rum bad luck has made us into (as one character is emphatically called) "a cocktail of crap", would we want to be made aware of this early - or would we choose to live our lives in ignorance, and perhaps for a while in bliss?
These ideas all percolate in The Phlebotomist, but Road's play goes a step further: the screening produces a health rating, on a scale of one to ten. And inevitably, late stage capitalism being what it is, this rating becomes the essential marker for social, professional, and economic worth: it dictates what job you can get, whom you are likely to date, whether you pay more or less insurance, where you can afford to live...after all, how can we invest in our future if we don't know the risks? Navigating this brave new world is Bea (whose job in the blood-testing industry allows her to fiddle results and make a little money on the side); her partner Aaron, whose own high rating gives him the freedom to both benefit from and entirely dismiss the system; and her friend Char, whose hard work and clear intelligence quickly becomes worthless in the light of a poor health rating.
Photos by Marc Brenner
Story-wise, we're in Black Mirror territory, but if we're comparing it to pop culture, it reminds me most of Breaking Bad, and the genius of Road's play is to track the invasive and corrosive effect of this germ of an idea as it slowly takes over Bea's life, corrupting her morals and distorting her worldview. And beyond this, we see how society is warped by the insidious power that the technology wields: very quickly, we move from innocuous dating profiles, where a winning smile makes up for a low rating, to parents cheerfully discussing post-natal abortion. Yes, post-natal abortion. It's testament to Road's writing that these absurd and revolting ideas are entirely believable. Her talent is on show in spades, not just in the gasps from audiences at the more shocking twists (that's when you know she's got us eating out of her hand), but in her perfectly pitched dialogue: she has an ear for entirely natural rhythms, full of breezy charm and quiet horror.
Complementing the writing, the show itself is superb. The play has transferred to the Hampstead Theatre's main stage after a barnstorming run last year in its smaller space - it's great to see this sort of elevation, especially for new writing, especially for something that taps into the cultural zeitgeist of our pop-cultural, sci-fi fears of near-future misery. Sam Yates' direction keeps the whole piece moving agilely, hitting home those moments of nausea and dread without over-egging them. Rosanna Vize's sparse set soon begins to disintegrate as the action becomes more and more toxic, the debris building up in the background hinting at the massive problems (not least, climate change) that are hidden by our idiotic socio-political encumbrances. Jade Anouka leads an excellent cast - you can see why she's considered the bee's knees: there's an energy, depth and clarity to her performance that is completely engaging and believable, even as Bea becomes more and more antagonistic. Rory Fleck Byrne is charming and evasive as Aaron, while Kiza Deen's embattled Char is vulnerable, boisterous and entirely likeable. Rounding things out (along with amiable support from Claudia Cadette and Edward Wolstenholme) is Mark Lambert's David, somehow the only apparently truly happy person in the play.
This is a great show, with plenty of brains (though nary a drop of blood in sight). You might've seen the Breaking Bad: Anywhere But America cartoon, where Walter White finds out he needn't cook meth to pay his medical bills because healthcare is publicly funded. I would love to believe the simplicity of this: that our healthcare system is faultless, and doesn't drive people to despair. I'd also love to think that The Phlebotomist is a fantasy, that we'd never give away our data to this extent, never allow ourselves to be so segregated and immiserated. But if that delusion didn't need further underscoring, we live in a time when blood testing already promises all the answers, when Spotify offers playlists based on our DNA. The Phlebotomist is all the more scary because we can't shake the suspicion that it's prophetic.