Writer: Joe Penhall
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: James Garrington
Premiered at the National Theatre in 2000, Joe Penhall’s play boldly explores attitudes and issues around mental health and racism, encouraging the audience to consider their own views, preconceptions and prejudices.
The play revolves around a young black man, Christopher (Oliver Wilson) who has been sectioned and watched for 28 days as he has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder. His doctor Bruce (Gerard MacCarthy), also young but white, is afraid that the symptoms are actually the start of something more serious and is concerned about how Christopher will cope once he is released into the world again. Enter consultant Robert (Robert Bathurst), who seems more worried about whether there are enough beds available than the implications of release on the patient. The patient, he argues, is suffering mainly from being a member of an oppressed minority who should be sent home because “if you keep him here long enough, he won’t be able to go home because he won’t know what home is any more”. The scene is thus set for a battle of egos between the two doctors, each trying to impose their will upon the other, almost regardless of the outcome for the patient.
What follows is a debate between the two, which ventures into a number of areas around morals, culture, race and mental heath. Why are many Afro-Caribbeans diagnosed with mental illness? Is there a cultural factor that the medical profession should consider in making a diagnosis? Indeed, who is “mad” and who is sane? The language used, full of medical jargon, needs some concentration on the part of the audience but also serves to add to the feeling of confusion, and being overwhelmed by events, that Christopher is experiencing as the play progresses.
The three actors all deliver outstanding performances. Oliver Wilson, as the subject of this debate, moves from moments of comedy through to despair with consummate ease. At times deliriously happy, at others full of anger and frustration, he is also totally calm and apparently sane in his complaint against Bruce. This is reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleanna in the way he picks up on phrases that have been used and, taking them out of context, making a plausible case. Gerard McCarthy competently plays the young doctor in his first month of training, who is firm in his belief that he is right, until his frustration boils over at the realisation that it is actually his mentor who is at the root of his problems. They are more than ably matched by Robert Bathurst as the idealistic consultant, who is obsessed with his own career and making sure that everything is totally politically correct, viewing the patient more as material for his book than as a human being. He is ideally suited to this rôle, portraying a cavalier, high-handed attitude to the concerns of his protégé and the welfare of his patient.
The feeling of coldness is heightened by the set designed by Colin Falconer, which is minimal with a blue and white colour scheme, typical of many offices. This is complemented by Oliver Fenwick’s stark lighting, and monochrome costumes. The only hint of any depth of colour on the set is the fruit bowl – full of oranges. Apart from that, there is no sign of warmth here to give any relief from the clinical discussion taking place about the patient’s future with no care for any feelings he may have.
The main strength of the play though, lies in the strength and quality of the script by Joe Penhall. Fast-paced and hard to follow at times, it moves from moments of comedy to almost Greek Tragedy in the inevitability of its progression. It raises questions around prejudice and stereotyping, without really providing any answers.
Thought-provoking and slightly disturbing, yet at the same time compelling, this play will provide an entertaining and stimulating evening.
Runs until 27th October 2012