Review: The Phlebotomist

A thought-provoking dystopian romance which leaves the audience questioning both their moral values and the future of our society

The Phlebotomist was billed as a dystopian romance, set in a world in which your “blood rating” (which takes into account your health, mental health, and predisposition towards certain diseases) defines your entire life, from your job opportunities to your love life, and even your ability to travel abroad.

It’s a chilling and entirely compelling concept, one which would surely make for a best-selling book or TV series, and one which is not the sort you’d expect to see on-stage.

Dystopias of any kind are rare in theatre – playwrights tend to lean in the direction of either complete realism or extremely abstract pieces – but after watching this performance of Ella Road’s 2018 play, you’ll be wishing they were more common in the Cambridge scene.

Freya Beard rehearsing the interludes. Photo credit: Channan Sangha.

The directors and actors brought this imagined (but entirely believable) world to life with ease on the Corpus stage: the main romantic plotline between the Phlebotomist herself, Bea (Eirlys Lovell-Jones), and lawyer-to-be Aaron (Thea Melton) is interspersed with a number of extremely effective interludes.

These short scenes each offer a unique insight into this “ratist” world, adding an element of self-aware humour whilst also encouraging the audience to reflect more deeply on the gravitas behind the sentiments expressed.

Subjects touched on included post-natal abortions (encouraged for low-rated babies) and a dating app which bases your profile upon your blood rating, and Freya Beard offered some simply stellar performances here. The directors’ and actors’ ability to strike the balance between comic relief and darkly thought-provoking undertones ought very much to be commended.

For this reason, however, I can’t help but mourn the fact that such a carefully imagined and constructed dystopian world was not developed further over the course of this two-hour play, as the somewhat slow-moving relationship between the two protagonists instead took centre stage throughout.

Lovers Bea (Eirlys Lovell-Jones) and Aaron (Thea Melton) in dress rehearsals. Photo credit: Channan Sangha.

This is by no means a criticism of the actors, however: Eirlys Lovell-Jones and Thea Melton portrayed their emotionally and morally complex characters with confidence and close attention to detail, forcing us to understand – if not to entirely empathise with – the two, even as they made bad decisions and expressed views which (to our minds) seem morally reprehensible.

That said, a fairly major setback was the lack of romantic chemistry between the two: for all that they handled the complexity of the dystopia to perfection, they never managed to sell the romance with the same level of conviction, which left me struggling to fully sympathise with their predicaments, and meant that the shocking plot twists at the end didn’t quite hit the intended mark (although they were still startling nonetheless).

The cast together on the Corpus stage in dress rehearsals. Photo credit: Channan Sangha.

The thematic richness of the piece largely makes up for this, as does the excellent acting by Charlotte McCarron and Kitty Ford as support characters Char and David respectively. Their reappearances add wit and wider context throughout, both of which are highly welcomed. That said, I couldn’t help but wish for the appearance of a few more such characters – if only because the play’s two-hour length left me hoping for a little more variety.

It must be mentioned that Tuesday night’s performance was prefaced by an announcement that a cast member was isolating, and it’s certainly remarkable that this never proved to be an issue: perhaps thanks to Lily Isaacs’ and Elena Pare’s confident direction (they were aware in advance that this was a possibility), the performance was smooth from beginning to end.

Overall, this take on The Phlebotomist is deeply engaging and tackles a range of themes with equal parts sensitivity and nerve, which will undoubtedly leave every audience member wondering if our modern world’s obsession with perfection will ever take us too far – and as much as we’ll all be hoping that it won’t, a large part of what makes this performance so impactful is the unfortunate fact that it might.


The Phlebotomist is running at the Corpus Playroom at 19.00 from Tuesday 18th January to Saturday 22nd. Get your tickets here.

Feature Image Credits: Bernie Carter