Blue/Orange – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Joe Penhall

Director: Daniel Bailey

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Christopher is excited – like a toddler overdosed on sugar, he can’t keep still, his joy in the world is palpable. The reason for his delight? After 28 days of being forcibly sectioned, he’s due for release into the community. He’s suffering from a variation of Borderline Personality Disorder, and all that stands between him and freedom is his session with his young doctor, Bruce. But Bruce is troubled: he’s not sure they have Chris’s diagnosis right and wants Chris to stay. There’s some evidence for his concern as we see Chris’s moods swing. Or maybe he’s just disappointed because he sees himself as a young black man being told (again) what to do and what to think by a young white man who perhaps doesn’t understand Chris’s background and at times appears alarmingly naïve in his interactions?

Bruce has a mentor and supervisor in the senior consultant, Robert. Maybe he can help? But Robert comes down in Chris’s corner, perhaps because he sees in Chris the genesis of a new chapter in the book he is writing that discusses whether psychosis and delusions can have a racial element? Can Chris be suffering from a uniquely black psychosis? And can Robert, after very little time interacting with Chris really know what’s best for Chris rather than Bruce? Chris and his delusions seem to become little more than pawns in the game Robert plays in order to try to advance himself; and Chris’s delusions seem very real when he seems to believe that the oranges in the consulting room are blue – both skin and flesh – and that he is the unacknowledged son of a famous African.

What begins as an academic disagreement soon blows up into a battle of wills between the two professionals and escalates further as the position of each becomes further entrenched. Along the way, questions are raised about the nature of mental health and our response, of systemic racism brought about by well-meaning men and of how far men will go to advance their own self-interests.

If this all sounds heavygoing, then fear not: this three-hander is long and wordy by its nature, but it is full of genuine bellylaughs alongside the more awkward and uncomfortable moments. Director Daniel Bailey has ensured that the action is fast-moving with characters that we feel we’ve come to understand. He’s helped, of course, by the flowing dialogue of Joe Penhall, the writer of Blue/Orange, who clearly has an ear for it.

Richard Lintern is the oleaginous Robert. We have his card marked from the off when he seems to think Bruce will be more interested in the creature comforts a consultant rôle will bring than in the satisfaction of a job well done, a diagnosis made, a treatment agreed. Outwardly reasonable, affable even, we soon begin to sense a moral vacuum within. Lintern’s portrayal of a man disappointed in life, coveting that which others have, is chilling and all-too-believable. His readiness to discount the evidence of his own eyes is unsettling. But he never strays into caricature; while we can be wryly amused at some of his posturings, we are never tempted to laugh at him. No, he is not a funny character at all.

You can’t help but feel for Bruce, played by Thomas Coombs. He’s frustrated that he can’t seem to make progress with those who should be helping, not hindering, him. We see his exasperation and its impact on him as he becomes increasingly awkward in the face of his superior and tries to make his points about Chris’s condition. But even he suffers from the delusion that he automatically knows best what’s best for Chris, becoming patronising, laying down rules and becoming annoyed, for example, when Chris has, without Bruce’s explicit permission, packed. Coombs brings out both of these aspects of Bruce’s character and their interaction as he argues his point.

Ivan Oyik brings us the quicksilver Chris. Remarkably, this young man is still training at Guildford School of Acting; if this performance is anything to go by, he has a bright future. It’s a nuanced performance, as he switches from reasonable to confrontational in an instant, from high to almost unbearable low. As with Lintern’s Robert, Oyik does not descend into caricature: his Chris is complex as his expectations are repeatedly raised and dashed. And on Amelia Hankin’s sparse and open set, there is no hiding place, everything is laid bare.

Even tempered as it is with humour, Blue/Orange is not an easy watch. It’s almost a period piece having been first performed in 2000 but still feels as if it has a message today – even if that message is that little has changed in the world since then. As Bailey says, ‘Great plays present questions, they don’t give you the answers and this play does that’, leaving the audience with much to ponder after leaving the theatre about how we treat those marginalised, whether because of their mental health or race or a combination of the two.

Runs Until 16 February 2019  | Image: Myah Jeffers

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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