The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Phlebotomist

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2nd May 2018

The Phlebotomist is sold out for the rest of its runs. So you had better hope that it pitches up elsewhere, ideally with the current cast and creatives, for it really is an excellent play. There are three almighty talents on show here. Writer Ella Road in this her debut play, actor Jude Anouka who just keeps on getting better and better and director Sam Yates who proved his mettle with Glengarry Glen Ross recently, but here extracts the maximum amount of tension and drama out of what is already a smartly plotted story.

It is another one of these near future dystopian dramas, which playwrights are currently obsessed with. No real surprise there. Us liberal, luvvie types are never happier than when warning ourselves, (for we are the audience), about the impending disasters that beset us, ideally disasters precipitated by the very technologies which we benefit from most. Ella Road’s story starts with a slightly different, and I think more chilling and realistic premise, that blood samples will be used to provide a detailed genetic profile, an early prognosis of what medical conditions will impact you through your life and even your behavioural characteristics. You can avoid the test but this will impact your educational, employment, credit and relationship prospects and looks shifty. Of course taking the test, and finding out the details all wrapped up in a rating out of 10, will also impact those prospects.

Bea (Jade Anouka) is the phlebotomist, (no I didn’t know either), who administers the test. She, quite literally, bumps into Aaron, (a fine performance from Rory Fleck Byrne, a new name to me), who turns out to be a descendant of the poet Lord Tennyson. They fall in love (and look like they do such is the chemistry between them). Turns out they both have high scores. Char, Bea’s friend, (a spirited Cherrelle Skeete, also new to me), does not and she abandons her career to campaign against the system, after an attempt at deception. The only other character is David (Vincent Ebrahim) a softly spoken, sagacious porter at the hospital Bea works in.

I won’t elaborate. Suffice to say that Ella Road provides enough disclosures to keep the plot moving along but not too many to raise eyebrows. The world she conjures up cleverly eschews compulsion, there is no evil state organ here, implying benign, market driven compliance, (as with so many informational threats to our privacy). Avoidance and manipulation of the test results are, rightly, key elements of the plot. It all feels very real. It asks some big questions, even tackling the stain of eugenics, but never, ever, appears didactic. How much should we know about our genetic make-up? Should this ever be made public? How “perfect” do we want to be? Ms Road has an unmistakeable view but ensures all three main characters elicit our sympathy.

The dialogue between those characters is believable, the monologues perfectly placed, there is humour and there is even a memorable tomato based metaphor (you’ll see). It is something that Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team would have been proud to come up with, but this is achieved without their giant budget, and, I think, has far more emotional clout. Rosanna Vize offers a simple, grey transverse set at the HT Downstairs, a few chairs and other props. Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Alex Twiselton’s sound are similarly economic but very effective. Costume changes are effected on-stage. The production is helped enormously by Duncan McLean’s snappy video work which offers social and political context so that the play, which at its heart, is a story about the relationships between Bea and Aaron, and Bea and Char, is never overwhelmed by its central conceit.

Jade Anouka was mesmerising in the Phyllida Lloyd Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, as Ariel, as Mark Antony and as Hotspur. She was the only saving grace in the otherwise execrable Jamie Lloyd Faustus. You may have seen her in the recent ITV production of the Trauma, by Mike Bartlett. She was the daughter of Adrian Lester’s high-flying surgeon. When John Simm, who plays the embittered father of one of Mr Lester’s patients, invades the family home, her fear jumps through the screen into your living room. (How Mike Bartlett keeps getting away with these electrically charged finales verging on the melodramatic beats me, but he does).

Up close as here, she is bloody marvellous to watch. A completely natural performer. Not to decry her three colleagues but it is difficult to take your eyes off her. Sam Yates does seem to have a knack of ensuring that great stage actors, (and I am putting Ms Anouka in that category), are great on stage. Not as easy as it sounds. I offer the evidence of, especially, Christian Slater, but also Robert Glenister, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse (Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****), Emily Barber in The Globe Cymbeline, Jane Horrocks in East is East, his collaboration with Ruth Wilson. Why he hasn’t been offered a big gig at the National is a mystery to me.

 

 

Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****

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Glengarry Glen Ross

Playhouse Theatre, 25th January 2018

I am wary of West End productions that import a big American movie star to embellish a revival. And, like most ill thought out prejudice, this invariably turns out to be wrong. Still the only person harmed by this ignorance is me.

In this case though I was far more optimistic. This is, arguably, David Mamet’s finest play. A Pulitzer prize-winner no less. It was to be directed by the talented Sam Yates. The supporting cast, Robert Glenister, Kris Marshall, Daniel Ryan, Oliver Ryan, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington was top drawer. And the Hollywood star in question was Christian Slater. Now I admit he may not be peak A list, he has been in such unutterable dross, I have never seen the West Wing, The Forgotten and Mr Robot, (I don’t have the patience for these TV series), and I can see he is a bit of a tit in real life. But when I have seen him he has munched his way through the scenery in that mini-Jack Nicholson way of his and I figured he was born to play Ricky Roma.

And so it proved. A dazzling performance. Cocksure, brash, manipulative, aggressive, dismissive but vain, hollow, deceiving himself as much as others. Ricky is about as good a character as modern drama has created but Mr Slater still delivers. The scene with Daniel Ryan’s cowed James Lingk, ably abetted by Stanley Townsend’s Shelley, was delicious, as good as I have seen on the West End stage. You could feel Ricky’s brain going through the gears so as not to lose the sale. Prodding, patting, probing, putting his arm around Lingk, not letting him get away. Superb.

Watching Stanley Townsend shift from desperation to euphoria, and then back again, as he pleaded for leads, pulled in a big sale and then realised he had been taken for a ride, was also exquisite. Kris Marshall’s portrayal of John Williamson, the office manager who eventually relishes the power he wields over the salesmen, was a revelation. Don Warrington played George Aaronow as a broken, lost figure, so easily manipulated and Robert Glenister was wonderful as Dave Moss, a man whose cunning is only matched by his belligerence.

This is as good an ensemble as you are going to see on any West End stage. Mind you I bet that is the reaction of anyone who sees it anywhere whenever it is revived. I first fell in love with GGR in, I think, 1985, the revival of Bill Bryden’s world premiere National Theatre production, staged at the Mermaid Theatre, (which is a lovely space and it is bloody criminal what has happened to it). The 2007 revival, with Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen, directed by James MacDonald, near matched this. Not quite so sure about the film, what with the extra character and the softening of Jack Lemmon’s Shelley, but it should still be on your film bucket list for sure.

The salesman in the US is an iconic figure, even in a world of Amazon, internet disintermediation, telesales and the like. The skill of building a relationship with a customer or client, of identifying and fulfilling a need or want, (or manifestly not as is the case here), will always be with us. It is a potent subject for drama: the Tourist and LD remain addicted to the Apprentice, and America chose to elect an ersatz salesman as its leader. The attraction for playwrights lies in the insight the salesman offers into the human condition, particularly its uglier side, and the resonant metaphor it offers for society and economy. Hard to believe but the same subject gave us an even better play than this. In fact the greatest ever American play in the form of Death of a Salesman.

Of course the real beauty of the play is Mamet’s dialogue. And it is beautiful make no mistake. The boy Aristotle, who knew a thing or two, said drama needed heightened language, which you certainly get here, but also rhythm. a kind of music, to the interaction of the plot, characters, lines and the overall spectacle, and this is what Mamet delivers in spades. And he doesn’t hang around. Act 1, in the Chinese restaurant, is a little over half an hour here, (always fun watching the GGR virgins looking a bit nonplussed at the speed with which the interval arrives). Yet, in its three perfect scenes, we learn everything we need to know about Levene, Williamson, Moss, Aaronow, Roma and victim Lingk. In my book Roma’s soliloquy, masked as sales patter, is up there with the best ever written for the stage. And we see that pathetic combination of male aggression, false certainty and “firing from the hip” which infects modern political economy. Too often the plausible bully wins and rises to the top. And if he can’t win he throws a tantrum or cheats. It is always a he.

Chiara Stephenson’s set (and costume) design strove, as it should I think, for absolute realism, which meant a fair bit of carpentry in the interval to turn the atmospheric restaurant into the claustrophobic office where the overnight robbery barely upsets the chaos. And so on to the perfectly plotted second act. I guess the first performance I say was the best precisely because I didn’t know what was going to happen, but knowing the plot, as with all the best plays, leaves more headspace to relish the language and marvel at how Mamet captures this cocktail of virility and vulnerability without ever losing our connection with the characters. For ultimately our problem, surely, is we sort of admire Roma and we sort of pity Levene

Sam Yates as director lets the text sing and, unsurprisingly, leaves the cast to do their thing. So why not a perfect 5 stars. Well this reflects my now oft repeated aversion to West End theatres. To fund my theatrical habit means I can’t go splashing sixty quid plus, or even three figures, for the best seats in the house, willy-nilly,  so I went tight here and opted for the balcony (upper circle as they term it), having stupidly ignored the advice of simian experts. View and sound commensurate with price but the seats themselves up here in the Playhouse are ridiculous. I couldn’t fit in. Not I was a bit uncomfortable. I mean I couldn’t fit in. Moving to a smaller neighbour option and shuffling around helped in Act 2 but it was still about the worst I have ever experienced. Let’s hope they never put a Hamlet on here. I know there ain’t much they can do, and that ATG has to earn its corn, but a clear indication of just how tight legroom is would be appreciated, Anyway I found out the hard way.