The week in theatre: The Phlebotomist; The Bay at Nice; Emilia – review

Hampstead; Menier Chocolate Factor; Vaudeville, London
Debut playwright Ella Road conjures a potent dystopia, Penelope Wilton is perfection in a sharp David Hare revival, and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady finds her voice

There is an extraordinary moment in The Phlebotomist when a character is given a low mark – 2.2 out of 10 – and the audience gasps in dismay. It is as if Stephen Hawking had been given a D for GCSE physics, or Simon Russell Beale awarded a single star for Hamlet. Except that this mark is for a complete genetic assessment – and the result means that all possibilities for the future have been changed.

In her assured first play, Ella Road creates a coherent dystopia. By means of blood testing, everyone is measured for every possible challenge to health – diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s – and awarded an overall rating. It is chilling that this rapidly seems normal, though scarcely surprising – have we ever before been so obsessed with marking everything? Chilling, too, how Road’s new categories appear inevitable: “subs” for those rated below standard, and “ratist” – cleverly only a whisper away from “racist” – for those who mind too much about people’s ranking. Terrific videos designed by Louise Rhoades-Brown extend the reach of the action. In a wrenching sequence, a beaming couple whose first child was born prematurely, blind and not strong, explain that they briskly decided to move on to a more robust version: they want to encourage others to know their rights.

Chilling but not terrifying. Sam Yates’s production doesn’t quite land on four fiery feet. Environmental havoc is hinted at but not explored. Road never unpicks a central assumption of her argument – that assessment will automatically lead to disregard for human life. There is, though, a steady beat at the play’s heart. The person who takes the blood for analysis is played by Jade Anouka, who brings to the stage her particular frankness, bodily and vocal strength, and gleaming geniality. She is also at the centre of a minor breakthrough, when she advances on her man (Rory Fleck Byrne) with her medical needle – shouting at him to keep still while she jabs him. For years, when a woman has yelled commandingly on stage she has been greeted with laughter; here there is only a ripple. Perhaps audiences are losing the assumption that any woman in a rage must be a harridan.

The Phlebotomist was first seen in the smaller space downstairs at Hampstead. The introduction of this arena for trying out new work has been one of artistic director Edward Hall’s welcome innovations. That’s important: it is easy for a theatre to get stuck. For all its successes, Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory has more often bustled than brooded. I don’t think I have ever seen a contemplative production there – until last week, in Richard Eyre’s exemplary staging of The Bay at Nice.

Penelope Wilton and Ophelia Lovibond in The Bay at Nice by David Hare at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Penelope Wilton and Ophelia Lovibond in The Bay at Nice by David Hare at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

David Hare’s 1986 play, set in the Soviet Union of the 50s, and centred on an art historian and her daughter, is a small-scale drama alive with agile oppositions. Will against spontaneity; leaving versus staying; Soviet realism against the free-flowing loops of Matisse. More obliquely political than most of Hare’s work, it’s a reminder of how verbally fleet he can be – as well as a symptom of the feeling for Russia evident in his later Chekhov adaptations and his screenplay for the Nureyev biopic The White Crow, in cinemas now.

Designer Fotini Dimou creates a spacious, plain wood room, over which Paul Pyant’s lighting slants: a place of nuance and melancholy, which captures a play of reflection and restraint. Who could be better equipped to embody this than Penelope Wilton? In talking about passion and denial she does not do the obvious thing – seem to be reining herself in, tamping herself down. Instead she makes strong emotion and the withholding of feeling look all of a piece. Watching her is to see light falling differently on a multifaceted surface; she can appear utterly to change without making a move or a moue. She delivers Hare’s most revealing lines with sumptuous crispness. “I act as if I’m rich. That seems to me simply good manners.”

Subtlety is not the point of Emilia, commissioned by Michelle Terry for the Globe and now roaring into the West End. Urgency is. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play focuses on Emilia Bassano Lanier not simply as a candidate for the Dark Lady to whom Shakespeare addressed his sonnets, but as a forceful spirit and a neglected poet: she becomes a vessel for centuries of unheard, disregarded female voices.

Nicole Charles’s production is a romp and a rally. Joanna Scotcher’s costume design neatly puts the women in dark blue, men in russets and reds. Luisa Gerstein’s music mixes flutes and cellos with electronic noise. An all-female cast play the chaps – buffoons and bullies – with much swaggering of codpiece and mustachio. Shakespeare drops in, nicking some of Bassano’s adjectives and wondering if she is really his type. A chorus of women sway together in doula-like support. Bassano herself is played persuasively by three actors of different ages – Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins – with Perkins getting the audience on its feet with a final call to arms.

I look forward to the time when women – we – are less the central subject of our own work, and when we take it less for granted that one woman may easily stand for many. But there is no denying the galvanising effects of Emilia, some of them unpredictable. In response to a woman who wanted to see the play but couldn’t leave her baby, the Vaudeville next month stages the first-known parent and baby performance in the West End.

Emilia at the Vaudeville.
Emilia at the Vaudeville. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Star ratings (out of five)
The Phlebotomist ★★★★
The Bay at Nice ★★★★
Emilia ★★★

• The Phlebotomist is at the Hampstead theatre, London, until 20 April

• The Bay at Nice is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 4 May

• Emilia is at the Vaudeville theatre, London, until 15 June


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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