WATCHING the amount of cigarettes being smoked in the lounge area of the psychiatric ward of the hospital where the play is set is a pretty good give away that Blue/Orange was written and first performed back in 2000 when smoking was normal in public places.
The racial language is hopefully historic too as we have culturally progressed to be more respectful. Any historical distancing stops there though along with any thoughts that this production has little relevance to today.
There are three characters or protagonists in this play at the Birmingham Rep – Bruce, the young doctor who thinks he already knows everything about analysing patients and the mental health service; Robert the senior consultant who has seen it all and awaits his knighthood and demands respect and Christopher, a young black patient who has been sectioned at the request of the police for 28 days and who’s fate lays in the hands of the other two.
A life sentence of internment in mental institutions or released with nowhere to go.
“Perhaps you should just go home and play reggae,” suggests Robert at one point.
Bruce is played Thomas Coombes and Robert by Richard Lintern both of who have arm length CVs covering numerous stage, television and screen appearances whereas Ivan Oyik who plays Christopher is still in his final year of training at Guilford School of Acting.
On stage though there is no difference in performance between any of them – they are all simply magnificent in their respective roles.
They bring complete justice to the text of award winning writer Joe Penhall. Their talented director Daniel Bailey, has formed them into a cast who are as effortlessly believable as they are watchable; never once do they become boring as they offer up multi-layered performances that make us scratch beneath and judge ourselves. There are in fact many more questions on offer than answers.
What is amazing is how much food for thought is packed into one play – lingering racial attitudes – the absence of real care in the community – the pecking order in the NHS and perhaps why mental illness in the African-Caribbean community is so high to name but a few. Then there is the tug-of-war between the doctors over whose patient Christopher is and who will make the final decision on his future. It is more about power than patient care.
The set design by Amelia Hankin is quite perfect. The auditorium becomes an almost traverse setting with the main stage brought down to floor level and a smaller stage offset in the centre, with seating around it, bringing intimacy where there is normally spectacle.
Here perches the ward lounge with its turquoise blue sofas and orange ceiling.
There is a table with a bowl of oranges on it. Does Christopher really believe the flesh inside the oranges is blue any more he believes is Idi Amin is his Daddy?
There is also a long corridor down from the lounge to a set of familiar double doors always found in hospitals. The overriding question is will Christopher get to walk that corridor to freedom before the evening is out?
Not without it’s humour Blue/Orange is a poignant, sometimes tough but definitely rewarding watch.
Blue/Orange runs until February 16. For more information, times and ticket prices, visit https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/blue-orange.html
Review by Euan Rose