Setting goes a long way in Whose Blood at The Old Operating Theatre: up the steep, winding stairs of the church tower, into the museum shop and then around the glass cases displaying tonsil guillotines, foetus hooks, sputum cups and rusty amputation saws, into the attic and the old operating theatre itself. Once there, the lights go down and the audience is plunged back in time to the era of body snatchers, blood letting, leeches and grisly experiments that were more often kill than cure.
Bankcider pack a lot into just over an hour: Efua and Abakah Kuntu live and work in London in 1832, immigrants from distant Ghana. Abakah (Charlie Folorunsho) becomes ill and Efua (Candice Onyeama) seeks treatment for him; young, ambitious surgeon Hugo Forester (Mark Hawkins) offers to operate at St Thomas' Hospital but at a grave price. His superior Samuel Carter (John Gorick) is torn between moral practice and advancing practices. The characters intertwine in Faustian pacts made flesh, bartering bodies (their own and other people's) for glory, for love, for knowledge and advancement. Whether right or wrong, the transactions happen and troubling consequences follow.
Themes include immigration, integration and segregation of different cultures, the importance of death rituals, medical ethics and the English history of slavery. While this sounds overbearing, it is an impressive achievement that it is the characters and their individual plights that are the focus, their complex feelings and dilemmas that drive the story. Whose Blood could easily have been one of those “bringing the story to life” museum attractions, using jobbing actors and a hastily compiled script to enhance the visitor experience. But Alex Burger's script, Karena Johnson's direction and the excellent performances of the cast elevate Whose Blood beyond this. Whose Blood is a moving, touching, thought-provoking piece of theatre.
Whose Blood at The Old Operating Theatre, until 12 March. For more information and tickets, go to the Whose Blood website.