Friday, 16 November 2012

Blue/Orange - review

Written by: Kirstie Ralph (@kjralph)

Richmond Theatre, London

An uninhabited, pristine consultation room of a psychiatric hospital was our introduction to Penhall’s acclaimed play. The room, with its gleaming metal, polished glass and white faux leather chairs oozed clinical professionalism, alongside a fruit bowl of oranges which is perhaps more common in a “Bupa” hospital than one of a failing NHS; little did we know that the oranges would become the focal point for a play which addresses issues that are much less obvious and attractive.

The play received glorious reviews in its first West End run, and amassed several prestigious theatre awards including Lawrence Olivier Best Play of the year in 2001. Needless to say the excitement for opening night at Richmond Theatre rippled throughout the auditorium. The play addresses the key issues of mental illness, race and even tackles the language we use every day in relation to these. The play comes from the time of New Labour politics, with Britain immersed in ‘spin culture’: it is riddled with signifiers and epithets which trap the three central characters in linguistic cross-fires.

The senior consultant Robert (Downton’s Robert Bathurst) is supposedly the mentor of trainee psychiatrist Bruce (Gerard McCarthy), yet the friendship and collaborative work is complicated by BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) victim Christopher (Oliver Wilson). Robert soon shows his true colours as the institution’s ‘authority’ which soon appears to be the root of his pompous buffoonery and love of Radio 4, which provides the basis of the humour for the largely middle-aged audience. Christopher is initially Bruce’s patient; however it becomes clear that his zest for the job is also tainted by his over involvement and lack of professionalism with patients.

What is strikingly tragic about the play is that during the ever-continuing arguments between the two doctors, Christopher is often in the middle overhearing and understanding everything that is being said around him. This is visually presented near the end of the belaboured second act, which is full of arguing and irresolution, when Christopher finally falls to his knees in despair. Only this desperate act for attention and one of great need stops the ‘professionals’ in their tracks. Penhall is indeed suggesting that the linguistic war and battle of wits is half reason behind Christopher’s madness. He is constantly being moved from one authority to another, constantly being labelled – but never being properly cared for; the truth is always being obscured by Robert who is cynical and corrupt, and by Bruce who ultimately caves to Robert’s power in order to save his career.

The play was a showcase of a greatly energetic cast who all performed passionately, however what resonates is how the play never reaches a clear-cut conclusion. Christopher leaves in the same helpless situation as before, and now has the added stigma of having been sectioned. Plus, the doctors remain locked in their petty conflict. This irresolution is definitely a conscious decision on Penhall’s behalf; but it doesn’t make it any more dissatisfying. 

This production runs until 17 November 2012. 

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