Bad Blood Blues
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Have you ever struggled to correct an e-mail and suddenly discovered you've accidentally sent it, or poised with your fingers on the keyboard unsure whether to spell stationery with an 'e' or an 'a'? That's how we discover Clare, in a hospital office in a Francophone country in Africa, as a young man called Patrice waits hoping that she will help him with his English conversation. It is funny and relaxed and this seems the set up for a romantic comedy involving these two engaging personalities - except that we have already had a PowerPoint introduction with the same woman presenting graphs and statistics about a drug trial with pregnant women who have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Clare can't fit in a personal life because she is married to her work, or so she says: always too busy, yet always finding time to tell you so at length. You can't help thinking that she uses work to blank out her fears that she's lost out on that side of things. For the lack of romance and children she also cites the awkward limp that childhood polio has left her with - but the much younger Patrice thinks it gives a lovely movement to her bottom. It is not surprising that she falls for his charm but is the attraction mutual and are they both using each other in some way?
Clare is a British-born mixed-race academic now based in the USA, Patrice a young office worker who says he is applying for a place at UCLA. There is an obvious contrast in the backgrounds and opportunities afforded by the academic West and ex-colonial Africa but it is the personal relationship between these two very people that provides the plot and structure for the play. They are beautifully played by Martina Laird and Nathaniel Martello-White with a subtlety that suggests an underlying complexity only gradually revealed. Whether in flirtation or confrontation they are a delight to watch, not least in their handling of Sirett's exuberant humour, whether it be Clare teaching Patrice a lexicon of sexual swear-words or the comic near interruption of coitus by a fellow worker (this is not a piece for little children).
Children, however, and their endangered lives are at the heart of it, as the photographs of African women and their babies projected over our heads establish from the start. The protagonists' concerns and much of their conversation are deeply linked to the experiment that Clare is conducting and the ethics of such trials.
I have been a guinea pig for a drug trial and I considered it part of my public duty. I never discovered whether I had been given the drug or not, for, like the one in this play, it was a double-blind trial. The difference is that I was promised the drug afterwards for free if it proved effective and I was not carrying a foetus to which I could pass on HIV. The issues this play raises are not simple ones. It is easy to believe you are being both a responsible scientist and a good humanitarian dedicated to the general good but what if you are facing death or the death of someone you love?
Ryan Romain's production handles the shifts in the relationship with skill and frames the very naturally played action with breaks in which, to African or African influenced music, the dimly lit actors change costumes and arrange props in an almost ritual manner. These end with a brief slow-motion physical sequence which segues into the next scene before they speak. This framing gives both a sense of time passing and allows time for ideas to sink in. Its intimacies reflect the development of their relationship and the performers handle it with skill, making it a continuing part of the theatrical experience.
This is a play that packs a great deal, both ideas and humour, into its seventy minutes. It leaves you moved and stimulated. Its message suggests perhaps too strongly that the situation is one between the developed West and the underprivileged of Africa. There have been many accusations that western medicine exploits Africa in doing tests there that would not now be countenanced at home, though the play itself includes a reminder of the notorious but the parallel theme of the inability to supply existing medicine because of cost is one which is not limited to that continent, it affects the poor everywhere and even our own NHS.
Until 9th May 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton