Blue/Orange at Grand Opera House York

Blue/Orange seems to have a lasting effect on Nouse critics, as another York based production of the psychological drama leaves reviewer utterly mesmerised

Venue: Grand Opera House York
Rating: ****

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Then they lock you up.” – Christopher

Christopher, a young Afro-Caribbean man played by Oliver Wilson, is one day away from being released back into the community after treatment for his mental illness. Junior doctor Bruce (Gerard McCarthy) feels that Christopher should be re-sectioned to save him from a hostile housing estate where he does not belong. Bruce’s superior, consultant psychiatrist Robert (Robert Bathurst of Downton Abbey fame) disagrees and thinks Chris should go back into the community. Bruce’s idealism and curiosity clashes with the cynical, career-focused Robert.

Whilst the issues Blue/Orange explore are heavy, there are many comedic moments, especially belonging to Chris. Wilson’s sensitive portrayal of the extreme behavioural switches between the playful and the darker, paranoid sides of Chris demonstrated depth. However, Wilson still allows us to laugh and demonstrates Chris’s complexity. Bathurst’s Robert seemed at ease, comfortable in his authority over Bruce’s questioning. Whilst Bruce initially had our sympathy as a caring doctor, by the play’s end a sourer character emerged and Robert triumphed.

The basic set had a clinical, contained feeling. The limited colour palette of sterile whites and blues contrasted with a bowl of oranges. Three white chairs centred on a table, giving an impersonal and compact medical environment. An innocuous water fountain gave further insight into Chris’s illness as Bruce says he can have water but no cola or coffee because the caffeine will make Chris misbehave. In the second half, the stage slid over to Robert’s office – still merely two white chairs and a table, but the smaller space seemed more private as he talked with Chris.

The writer of the play, Joe Penhall commented that the play’s deliberately “elliptical title” reflects “the shifting mutability of Chris’s thinking.” Indeed, at one point in the play, Chris actually sees an orange with blue flesh, despite Bruce trying to convince him that they are “orange oranges”, yet the title has wider resonance than this. Nothing is simply reducible (despite Robert’s earnest efforts) throughout the play, reflected by Robert and Bruce debating. Is it acceptable to call Chris “black” or should that be “Afro-Caribbean”? What was once called “schizophrenia” is now “borderline personality disorder” – the issue of language and labelling for the correct, appropriate term seems impersonal and clinical. Yet as the play demonstrates, trying to neatly label Chris (whether by race or mental illness) cannot and does not help his illness or situation. Even the oranges are not just oranges but a link to Chris’s father. Penhall wrote the play without wanting to provide any clean cut answers or solutions, instead trying to make us think of them.

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