Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which ran at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre until Saturday 26th, is a three-hander set in a psychiatric hospital in London. This production, the first revival since the play’s debut at the National in 2000, held many attractions, including its director, Kathy Burke, as well as Roger Lloyd Pack, better known as Trigger in ‘Only Fools and Horses’. The play, written by Joe Penhall, has won three major awards, the Evening Standard Best Play Award, the Olivier Award for Best New Play 2001 and Critics’ Circle Best New Play 2000, since its debut in London.
The action takes place over the last 24 hours of young Borderline Personality Disorder patient Christopher’s 28 day stay in hospital. As the play unfolds it becomes less and less about Christopher’s mental health and more about the issues and failings of the system in place to support him. The play opens with Christopher in a heightened state of excitement at the prospect of his ‘freedom’. He is in a consultation with Bruce, his psychiatrist, who is unsure that Christopher is healthy enough to be released. As a result, he has asked his supervisor, Robert, a consultant at the hospital, to sit in on the session and give his opinion.
As the play evolves, the focus of the action moves from Bruce’s reservation, to what has been described as an ‘incendiary tale about race, madness and a Darwinian power struggle at the heart of a dying NHS’. The startling claims made by this enigmatic, young and notably, black patient, such as his being the son of an African dictator, become likelier than is comfortable for Bruce. The suggestion is that his assumptions about Christopher’s mental health are spawned from racial prejudice, be it conscious or unconscious. This is exacerbated by the confused Christopher accusing Bruce, under Robert’s direction, of such prejudice.
Bruce’s perhaps naïve ideals lead him to believe that Christopher needed more time in the hospital, Robert disagrees as this may well lead to him being institutionalised. All very well, except that Bruce suspects Roberts motives to be his own career rather than Christopher’s wellbeing, and that he is disinterested in finding a pragmatic way to care for Christopher.
One of the most notable features of this play is its use of humour, and the actors played up to an alert and engaged audience. However, humour sometimes jarred in a production which demonstrates how society is in many ways failing patients like Christopher; is it really acceptable to laugh, as this audience did, at a definition of Borderline Personality Disorder as ‘on the border between Neurotic and Psychotic’? Uncomfortable moments such as these were rare, far sparser than the persistent and caricatured laugh employed by Robert, which became tiresome by Act Three.
Jimmy Akingbola perfectly captured Christopher’s state of heightened excitement, his inability to stay focused or concentrate, and his confusion, sparked by the mixed messages given to him by the two authority figures. His performance was impeccable, down to his gait and delighted stomach rubbing. Shaun Evans, playing Bruce, was equally convincing. Evans’ portrayal of initial naivete, developing into scepticism, his frustration and incredulous disbelief, elicited sympathy from the audience. Despite the laugh, Roger Lloyd Pack’s performance was assured and consistent. His depiction of Robert’s senior position, confidence and ambition was convincing from the moment he appeared. He moved with the ease and slight frailty his character required, injecting superb and compelling sniffs and shakes, making Robert instantly real.
The production was not only engaging at moments of intense dramatic action, but also in the moments afforded to for reflection. The breaks between scenes were dominated by Sound Designer Nick Greenhill’s strange, technological minimalism. He allowed little relief for the audience to withdraw from Blue/Orange.
Burke’s production emphasised the conflict between Bruce and Robert, raising the current questions facing the NHS and western society.