REVIEW: HeLa (Iron-Oxide)

Clever, Compassionate and Concise [by Sharu Delilkan]

Adura Onashile mesmerises.
Adura Onashile mesmerises.

It appears as if the play has already begun as we file into Q’s Loft space. Solo actress Adura Onashile busily writes on the blackboard with her back facing us and occasionally turns around to mouth words to her ‘other actors’ on stage. Before long you find yourself sucked into Henrietta Lacks’ world, retold with absolute clarity and compassion by the astute and talented Onashile.

Finding out that HeLa is the first play that she has penned is quite a surprise – something I only realised after the show. The writing is crisp, clear and above all encapsulates the ethical dilemmas that you as audience members come away from the show thinking and debating about for days.

Personally the fact that both factual data and insight into Henrietta Lacks‘ life are perfectly pitched and balanced throughout the show, makes for a heartfelt and compelling drama that’s non-judgemental and doesn’t run into the perennial trap of being OTT at any point in the magnificent one-woman solo piece.

HeLa straddles science and human drama impeccably, with protagonist Henrietta Lacks at its heart. Based on the New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, HeLa tells the little known true story of Lacks, an African American woman who died at the age of 31 from cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951, whose tissue samples were taken without her permission and subsequently used as the basis of critical groundbreaking scientific research spanning more than six decades.

In addition to Onashile‘s flawless acting and seamless transitions between characters and accents, Rosina Bonsu choreography of the movement is economical which provides a great visual that summarises and depict Lacks‘ spiralling medical condition incredibly effectively.

The ingenius minimal multi-purpose set and skilfully crafted AV design (Mettje Hunneman) complement the glib dialogue perfectly as well as the amazingly evocative soundscape (Daniel Krass) and dramatic lighting design (Simon Wilkinson).

As a dramatic piece HeLa could have easily be depicted as a dry documentary overly packed with jargon and facts, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Graham Eatough’s direction and treatment of the subject matter shows great care and highlights Onashile’s research – without being too showy – a rare skill that heightens the show’s dramatic effect. Onashile’s ability not to use the racism card too often but instead to allude to it in the most subtle of fashions is also refreshing and contributes to the realism of this fabulous ode to Lacks.

If you’re a fan of true stories, well-crafted work, brilliantly acted storytelling and just pure dramatic genius HeLa is a must see. Only a few days left so hurry to Q – I hear tickets are flying out the door!

HeLa is presented Iron-Oxide in association with British Council and Made in Scotland and plays at Q Theatre’s LOFT until October 25.

SEE ALSO: review by Vanessa Byrnes

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