Hampstead Theatre, London – 20 April 2019
What great timing! Just as the worried-well Health Secretary gets rubbished for taking a commercial DNA test, announcing that it has “saved his life” because it posits an increased prostate risk, and getting firmly told by the profession that he is ‘astonishingly ignorant’, and is wasting NHS resources by “booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist”. The hapless minister, though, is only a few decades ahead of the curve according to Ella Road’s dark dystopian play.
In this future world gene sequencing is instant – none of this sending-off to the lab for a fortnight’s wait, but in the phlebotomist’s laptop within minutes. And everyone is given a “rating”, according to their physical and mental disease risk. Hence employers and immigration authorities demand tests and disclosures, there’s a rising culture of “rateism” and a Pandora’s box of consequent evils ranging from “post-natal abortion” for low-scoring babies, low-raters urged into sterilisation, panicky blood-cheating and thieves with syringes puncturing high-raters for the red gold. Not to mention moments of rage and dread in surgeries when the laptop reveals you, as our heroine puts it, as “a cocktail of crap!”
The tale is set in a futuristic but recognisable bleakness, and adorned with mischievous projections which begin with the real Dame Sally Davies looming at us with her view that full gene-sequencing is everybody’s right. They progress through a dating video, fragments of political interviews, snake-oil promotions like Crispr gene-editing therapy to improve school performance, and news bulletins.
Our heroine is the gamine Bea (Jade Anouka), a phlebotomist scoring about 7, who meets and marries the 9+ Aaron (Rory Fleck Byrne) from a smoother, posher family. In an electric scene Bea has to tell her old friend Char (Kiza Deen, in a cracking mainstream stage debut) that her score is low, due to Huntingdons likely to flare within years.
For her friend’s job application she cheats out of kindness, then over a couple of years and marriage we witness her corruption: first into cheating for money, then at last (or almost at last) internalising the vicious rateism of society. In a great reveal there is rage and dismay and a bit of violent domestic phlebotomy which must be a stage first.
By contrast, though, Char with the doom of disease hanging over her abandons the mainstream job she won, sets off on the hippie trail, embraces risk and fate like a real human, and works as she declines for a charity for the low-rate ostracized. It’s a stunning performance, as is Anouka’s, the counterbalance of the two girls’ trajectories perfect.
All this is splendid. There is an oddity in the play, though: the excellent Mark Lambert plays David, a hospital porter whose attitude to life is the opposite to the poisonous culture. He speaks of his wife -a low-scorer due for Alzheimers – and his abandonment of grander careers. But he is also given a long monologue about a chap he knew who became such a perfectionist gardener that there was no room for his children to play, and choked on a cherry tomato because it was perfectly formed. Which might be intended as a metaphor, but slows the moment and misses the target by miles , not least because (equally inexplicably) this dystopian Britain is also malnutritionally short of fresh vegetables and fruit. With so much more interesting stuff going on, that chimes oddly. Not sure either that Aaron’s gambling addiction is wholly necessary.
But never mind. Under Sam Yates’ direction it’s a spirited page-turner of a tale, with some marvellous leads. Drop a couple of unnecessary scenes and it would be an electrically thrilling 100-minutes- no-interval, giving us no respite from a satisfyingly likely dystopia. Brrr.
box office hampsteadtheatre.com to 20 April