The 2019 documentary Three Identical Strangers shows what can happen when the natural order of things is interfered with in the name of scientific research. Ella Road’s Olivier Award-nominated The Phlebotomist isn’t about a set of triplets who are separated at birth so that they could be individually studied by psychologists, but it is inspired by biotechnology – the exploitation of biological processes, especially genetic manipulation. Road wrote it after watching a video about pre-diagnostic genetic testing for pancreatic cancer.
The thing that piqued Road’s interest is the moral and ethical implications around of knowing so much about the future. What would you do if you had access to a detailed report about your health? If you knew, down to the year, the month, or the day when and how you were going to fall incurably ill with a genetic disease. Would you tell your partner? Would you have children? Would you change the way you live? Commit suicide? The dystopian world of The Phlebotomist pushes the boundary further – would you kill a person in order to steal their good blood?
Neither Bea (Jade Anouka), Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne) or their pal Char (Kiza Deen) commit murder but they do get caught up in a myriad of murkiness between them. Aaron lies to Bea about his blood rating – he tells her he’s an 8.9 and she’s only a 7.1, so she decides to date him. It’s only when she becomes pregnant that she discovers he isn’t an 8.9 at all. Meanwhile Char’s blood tests reveal that she is soon going to develop Huntington’s Disease, which leads her to try and get a blood transfer on the black market so that she can have some semblance of a normal life.
The Phlebotomist received its world premiere at the Hampstead Downstairs last year but returns to the theatre’s main space for its current run. The thing about The Transfer – be it to a West End venue, or to a bigger space from a studio – is that it is widely regarded as the absolute pinnacle of success for a theatre production. What this thinking neglects to consider is that the space in which a production is performed is just as much a part of how the production is received as the elements of the play that are perceived as more actively decided – actors and costume, for example. Here, the productions suffers with its move. The walls are too wide and the ceilings are too high – the actors flounder about in the bagginess of the space.
Road’s script has not aged well either. It uses wordplay to comment on pressing societal issues – speaking of ‘ratism being worse over there’ (it isn’t, by the way – it’s not a competition), ‘rate culture’ and ‘mixed rate children’ – which feels contrived. It might have been revolutionary, or even clever, in years past to use metaphor to provoke people to think about the effects of discrimination against protected characteristics. But as time has moved on, so must our approach to initiating dialogue about these subjects.
The Phlebotomist is on at Hampstead Theatre till 20th April. More info here.