The Phlebotomist

Ella Road
Hampstead Theatre / Celia Atkin
Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Jade Anouka (Bea) and Rory Fleck Byrne (Aaron) Credit: Hampstead Theatre
Jade Anouka (Bea) Credit: Hampstead Theatre
Jade Anouka (Bea) and Cherrelle Skeete (Char) Credit: Hampstead Theatre
Vincent Ebrahim Credit: Hampstead Theatre

Phlebotomy: (n), the surgical incision of a vein. In Ella Road’s near-future dystopia, blood has become a big business in all senses of the term.

A genetic code has been developed that reveals an individual’s propensity to everything from cancer to criminality. Authoritative government medical officers preach platitudes about “precision medicine”, vowing to “embrace its huge potential” so that genomics can be “democratised”. Coiffed chat-show hosts court proselytisers who peddle miracles and sell subscriptions for courses that teach how to ‘up-rate’. On dating sites, it’s no longer a good sense of humour that gets one an auspicious match, but a genetic seal of hereditary purity.

If Fortune has smiled on your DNA then you’re a winner in the love, wealth and happiness stakes; if the Fates have been unkind, you slip down the social ladder into the losers’ swamp. But, a black market in red vials is booming and Bea, the eponymous protagonist, supplements her income by substituting high-rating samples with the surreptitious slickness of a Russian sports scientist.

At Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, Rosanna Vize’s traverse stage puts this ruthlessly cruel lottery under the microscope. On wall-mounted video screens which project dot-pixels resembling genetic blueprints, Duncan McLean’s cinematic clips provide society snapshots: a charity campaigns to eliminate childhood malnutrition; ‘MyRate’ dating agency advertisements feature besotted couples whose parallel plasmas make them a perfect pair. A minister is subjected to a John Humphreys-style interrogation about the government’s compulsory-testing policy for all those who present themselves at an A&E unit or an immigration desk.

Bea Williams and Aaron Tennyson meet (where else?) in a hospital corridor when he picks her, her upturned medical trolley and a tray-load of blood-filled vials from the floor, after she suffers a fainting-fit. From what Bea later calls a ‘random encounter’, romance is born.

Road’s dialogue is replete with the ever-present ‘likes’ and expletives of contemporary colloquialism, and exchanges are swift. Jade Anouka is an alert Bea, slightly tense but affable, whose manner shifts from easy to edgy in an instant. Her tone is frank, her speech succinct: indeed, her quick-fire answers are sometimes bullets which fly so fast that they anticipate the question.

In contrast, Rory Fleck Byrne’s would-be barrister Aaron has the relaxed assurance of the well-educated and well-provided for. Descended from the nineteenth-century Poet Laureate, he is partial to lyrical recitation—which provides Road with plentiful opportunities to quote her favourite gobbets. Aaron’s reflection that “men may rise on stepping-stones, / Of their dead selves to higher things”is presumably ironic, given the context. Bea is smitten, though her wide-eyed wonder and gushing enthusiasm—she “did” In Memoriam at school, “it’s like my favourite poem ever ever”—feels unconvincingly gauche.

Initially, there is something refreshing about Aaron’s apparent honesty as he rejects “dating profile verification bollocks”: “shouldn’t we just go for who we fancy?” But, there are gaps and inconsistencies which become increasingly unsettling. What was he doing at the hospital? Why is he so reticent about his family? Why doesn’t he want to have children?

The early courtship is exciting, somewhat breathless and carefree: his ignorance of phlebotomy triggers a running gag on ‘bottoms’. While he studies and watches box-sets, she works hard and, with the unscrupulous and aptly named Dr Salt, runs a side-racket in blood-test substitution to help the rich to ‘buy privilege’. Bea’s dishonourable dealing remains undetected: she earns a pay rise which enables them to rise a rung up the property ladder. She’s keen to please and brings home treats: blood oranges. They don’t have a baby, yet, but they do have a bonzai tree.

Bea’s childhood friend, Char (Cherrelle Skeete) is on a different trajectory. A graduate of two universities, she’s professional and ambitious, but is condemned to low-rating unemployability by a gene for Huntingdon’s: a disease she doesn’t have destroys not just the future but the present too.

Her initial response to the calamitous revelation is unimaginatively insipid—“Fuck! Fuck!”—but, driven by a suddenly burgeoning desire to “help people”, she trades her office suit for a geno-warrior’s overalls and joins a band of anti-discrimination activists. Increasingly vehement about rescuing society’s vilified, Char even ditches her mobile phone and, with missionary zeal, tries to save Aaron’s soul when she catches him indulging in on-screen betting.

Though Road sets up an interesting triangular relationship, as the play proceeds the credulity and concept strain. Bea and Aaron’s relationship begins to unravel under the pressure of private, commonplace concerns rather than communal social ills. Their social and educational backgrounds are irreconcilable; there are too many secrets and things unsaid. For example, it is not until after they are married that Bea confesses that her mother committed suicide after the death of Bea’s teenage half-brother from a, fortunately, non-hereditary syndrome. Health-conscious Bea pops vitamin pills and is in denial about Aaron’s dope-smoking. He’s ignorant about her ‘dealing’ and conceals his casino-habit.

While riots and murder spill onto the streets, doctors accused of genetic fraud stumble into the law courts. The substitution of blood ratings is superseded by transfusion. Lobbyists call for low-raters to be sterilised. The context overwhelms the private narrative. And so, when the now-pregnant Bea discovers that Aaron’s ‘blue blood’ is tainted by proclivity for schizophrenia—his father is in a psychiatric hospital which perhaps should not surprise us; after all, his poetic forebear was bipolar—it feels less significant than the fact that post-natal abortion has been legalised.

What does surprise, though, is the assertive Aaron’s readiness to submit to Bea’s command that he sit down so that she can whip out a test-vial, shove up his sleeve and plunge in a syringe. And, her bitter accusations—he’s just a “cocktail of crap”—are as uncharacteristically heartless as her callous self-pity when she laments that she could have had a good honest man with good blood, rather than some random bloke who deceived her with faux romance.

A more consistent, though intermittent, presence, and the best of the cast, is Vincent Ebrahim’s David, a senior porter at the hospital. By turns patient, supportive, mysterious and threatening, David conveyed the eerie unpredictability of Orwell’s O’Brien in 1984 whose schoolmasterly manner fools the trusting Winston: it’s perhaps no coincidence that David previously had a career as a teacher. Ebrahim delivers the play’s longest speech with powerfully understated focus, recounting the tragic tale of super-surgeon Henry Marett-Selva whose growing obsession with gardening saw him lose his wife, job and sanity. Henry’s obsessive quest for horticultural perfection proved fatal: he choked on a small spherical tomato. “Too darn round, too darn smooth,” mutters David, and we’d all do well to heed his lesson.

Road’s play follows an illustrious path lain by R L Stevenson, Huxley, Atwood, Ishiguro and others, and if it rather loses its way it does remind us that, paradoxically, so-called human ‘advances’ so often result in regression to the worst aspects of human nature. In the closing moments, David takes an industrial mop and slowly sweeps up the detritus which has gather along the traverse strip: vials, ruck-stacks, tomatoes. It’s a stark reminder that, even today, the ‘low-rating’ end up as litter, figuratively defunct and discarded.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour