Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Blue Orange’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 16th February
This very timely revival of Joe Penhall’s expose of the failings of the mental care system at the turn of the Millennium comes with a Director’s health warning … very little has changed in 20 years. Young African Caribbean men still predominate in our psychiatric wards. The quest to find a cure for Black psychosis has stalled.
In the play, 24-year-old Christopher is of Ugandan origin, thinks his dad is Idi Amin, and doesn’t know why he’s in hospital. His rather over-diligent doctor, Bruce, is concerned about him, but Robert, the severely politically incorrect senior consultant, sees no threat and is happy for him to be released. After all, the hospital needs his bed.
Bruce’s analysis is that his patient is “unresponsive and disorganised, with declining social skills” and need protection. Which probably describes most of us. Richard’s authority has been achieved by following guide lines and procedures and getting things right. So whose side are you on?
What ensues is a three-way battle, with the egotistical white medics in a power struggle for superiority and Christopher struggling to establish his sanity. In such a play, audiences will tend to side with the underdog. What’s so clever about Penhall’s script is that it scores so many direct hits on the soft belly of institutional inadequacy, the identity of the underdog changes dramatically from scene to scene.
Considering the severity of the subject matter, it’s an amazingly entertaining play; and that’s largely down to the superb way the three actors deliver their put downs. Thomas Coombs and Richard Lintern sweep through the piece with apparent ease – drawing upon their hugely experienced theatrical backgrounds to squeeze every drop of juice from the ‘Blue Orange’ script.
But if you turn the page of the actors’ CVs in the programme, you will see that Ivan Oyik (as Christopher) can barely muster a single sentence.
It’s always refreshing to see newly qualified performers getting their first professional engagement – but Ivan is actually still at college Yet he took the Rep by storm last night, working alongside two seasoned pros on absolutely equal terms – and holding the audience in the palm of his hands. He delivers his lines with immaculate timing – as if he wrote them himself. He inhabits the stage as if he owns it, and yet he never forgets that theatre is a team game. His is a wise head on young shoulders. The good news for directors is that he is the perfect professional package.
The character he plays thinks life is simple enough…he wants to find his mum and return to Africa…and can’t grasp the consternation he is causing. The consequence is that all three men circle each other on the edge of a vortex.
It’s a tight and tense play with a flashing blade of rapier wit. The white doctors’ prejudices and indiscretions are naughtily funny and start stacking up against them. Since the emergence of institutional accountability and ‘correctness’, they are now glaringly obvious and it’s intriguing for the audience is to work out which ones will come back to bite them hardest.
However, the over-riding emotion is pity; pity for the confused black kid trying to make sense of this alien society, and an even greater sense of pity that our exhausted care system is too busy sorting out its internal wrangles to provide him with the solutions he needs. But as director Daniel Bailey says, the greatest pity of all is that little has changed in 20 years. So the play is still as provocative as it ever was. And, at the Rep, it’s in very caring hands.