Bea and Aaron are determined that their relationship won’t be defined by blood ratingsChannan Sangha

The murky world of The Phlebotomist is one in which a rating from one to ten defines the rest of your life. Advanced medical software can analyse genes and determine the healthiness of your blood, taking into account your predisposition to every disorder, from diabetes, to depression, to Huntington’s. Ratings determine your prospects, and prejudice is rife against those unfortunate enough to have a low number.

While the concept might seem a bit off-the-wall, directors Lily Isaacs and Elena Pare make this society intensely real with their naturalistic, grounded interpretation of Ella Road’s dystopian drama. The play’s straight-faced look at themes as ugly as eugenics and denial of medical care could, in the wrong hands, give way to an overwhelmingly bleak world view, but the cast skilfully balance the play’s dark themes with warm, perceptive empathy for their characters.

Eirlys Lovell-Jones is especially moving as Bea, a long-suffering doctor. Her quiet vulnerability juxtaposes the vigour and liveliness of her Tennyson-quoting new boyfriend, Aaron, played with explosive energy by Thea Melton.

The play follows their relationship over a number of years. After meeting by chance, Bea and Aaron are lovestruck. They are true romantics: while the rest of the world might put ratings first, they are determined that their relationship won’t be defined by the numbers.

Things are looking worse for Char, Bea’s best friend, whose low rating might as well be a death sentence. Actor Charlotte McCaron fluently carries off the character’s difficult mixture of sharp wit, pride and shame. Her boiling frustration with the system is underscored by the political dissonance that threatens to erupt into violence in the wider world of the play.

The production’s use of newsreels, interviews, advertisements, and videos from dating websites change up the tone effectively. Some of these scenes are performed live on stage, most often by Freya Beard, who multiroles, showing off an impressive level of versatility and comic timing as several disparate characters.

Other scenes were filmed in advance, crafted by filmmaker Miranda Crawford using sites around Cambridge, and projected onto the stage.

“the cast skilfully balance the play’s dark themes with warm, perceptive empathy for their characters”

The multi-media approach gives the play a compelling sense of social and political scope, although the use of the Cambridge Boots outlet as a medical clinic was a little jarring. Parodies of self-improvement Youtube channels and staged TV interviews also give the story some necessary levity.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that Bea is more preoccupied by ratings than she lets on. Evident too are the eerie parallels between her society’s fixation on health, as defined by the state, and our society’s attitudes towards conditions like obesity, addiction and mental illness.


Mountain View

In conversation with the cast and creative team of The Phlebotomist

Only one character seems somewhat immune to ratings-obsession: Kitty Ford plays David, the hospital caretaker, with a lot of warmth and charm. He provides a much-needed alternate perspective on the system, and his musing monologue to Bea lends the play some lyricism.

Costumes are simple, if a little obvious. But they suit their purpose, particularly for the actors who multirole, serving to smoothly differentiate their characters. While the production suffers from some awkward transitions between scenes, characteristic of an opening night performance, this doesn’t entirely disrupt the play’s urgent pace.

Before the play draws to a close, the drama intensifies, and the climax is as provoking as it is startlingly poignant. Cast and directors work in tandem to increase the play’s intensity. If you want a vision of the future that will shock you, provoke you and leave you with a Black-Mirror-esque pit in your stomach, The Phlebotomist is playing until Saturday 29th January at the Corpus Playroom.