Genesis – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Frazer Flintham
Director: Charlotte Bennett
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

“Prevention is better than cure” but then again “ignorance is bliss”, so what would you do? These days medical science offers us all kinds of tests and guidance on the chance of developing certain diseases later in life, giving you the opportunity to reduce the risk and perhaps prevent it occurring. Yet would knowing help you or, like elaborate clairvoyance, does it mean you’ll forever live in the shadow of something that may never happen?

tell-us-block_editedRachel is a scientist working on the genetics of breast cancer, advising anxious patients when they discover they’re carriers of the BRCA 1 or 2 gene. But after a shocking letter from a relative, Rachel undergoes the test herself and decides instantly what she wants to do, imposing that choice on her 18-year-old daughter and her sympathetic doctor friend Jenny. But with Oxford entrance exams looming, a steady boyfriend and a bright future will Jade also take the test and can Rachel cope with the unknown?

Frazer Flintham’s new play Genesis presents a helpfully complex picture not just of the bewildering array of medical consequence that accompanies a genetic assessment, but also the confused and contradictory emotions it creates. Interestingly, as Jade points out, neither she nor her mother is yet ill, so making significant decisions about their bodies based on an educated guess leads to much of the drama and tension that Flintham creates, which in turn exposes the difficulties of making such a choice.

On the whole the medical terminology, scientific processes and statistics are weaved neatly into the dialogue so with one or two exceptions, it never feels like a lecture. And by turning the doctor into a patient, Flintham gives depth to his central character that balances the logic of Rachel’s position based on her extensive knowledge of the field, with the human fear and panic that underlie a lot of her actions.

Helen Bradbury’s Rachel is key to the success of this production, and while she’s not exactly cold, her clinical demeanour is used to mask a host of worries about her own lifestyle and her daughter’s future. Her refusal to succumb to denial or irrationality cause conflict with her friend and with Jade, but we see a hint of something more primal in a particularly compelling scene as she attempts to visualise her body after a mastectomy and with only a scar.

Charlotte Melia’s Jenny is a good counterpoint, insisting with firm rationality that ‘this isn’t a diagnosis” and while as scientists they know all the facts, the final decision should be much wider than that. The way in which the friendship between the two becomes increasingly strained is well charted and becomes quite potent. As does Rachel’s relationship with Jade (Joanna Nicks) which in the early stages is rather bland and a little clichéd. Although performed well by Nicks, Jade is rather thinly drawn but an argument later in the play about all the unhelpful “mights” a gene test throws up becomes quite a powerful engagement with the should you or shouldn’t you arguments.

Lydia Denno’s white tiled platform is one of the stars of the show with lots of pop-up squares that form tables, chairs and lecterns throughout. In each is a metal structure that implies collections of genes or possible future tumours and as more and more of these appear as the play progresses, Denno’s design neatly reflects the emotional confusion and clutter of these women, while voice-over interviews between scenes have patients imagining happy moments in their future lives at various ages.

Given the timing, Flintham’s play will undoubtedly be compared to Bryony Kimming’s current show at the National Theatre, which deals with the experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment and, in some ways, the two sit side-by-side. Yet Flintham’s work carefully avoids any hint of mawkishness, and while Genesis looks at preventing cancer before it happens, it gets to the heart of the fear, uncertainty and hope that genetic testing can offer and the very difficult choices it leads to.

Runs until 19 November 2016 | Image: Forward Theatre Project/Chris Payne

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