THE issues of class, race and the NHS couldn’t be more relevant to audiences today, tentatively returning to the theatre at the height of a pandemic-heightened mental health crisis.
The original Blue/Orange stage play, by former journalist Joe Penhall, was first performed in 2000, with a white actor playing the egotistical and manipulative consultant Robert, and another white actor as the flaky, junior psychiatrist Bruce, both using the ill-health and loneliness of black patient Christopher as a stick to hit each other with.
This revised production, re-written by Penhall for the new show’s director, and Royal and Derngate artistic director James Dacre, is still set twenty years ago in an NHS psychiatric unit over a 24hours. The set is as stark as a waiting room with the three actors working in a space lit from the front of stage by a white strip bulb and a clock that appears above the stage, 24 style.
This time the consultant is played by award-winning Hamilton star Giles Terera, whose Robert is still snobbishly privileged but played with a seething undercurrent of resentment of his fellow, presumably white, consultants. He’s determined to make a name for himself by expelling patients to free up beds, while using the case of confused and fizzingly energetic Christopher, played superbly by Michael Balogun, for his own ends.
Balogun makes Christopher the most magnetic presence on stage, a pent-up ball of energy, desperation and despair watching his life bickered over by two men who discuss him as if he were invisible. His frustrations, confusion and eagerness to please; coupled with the fearful excitement of his impending release, create a palpable tension for the audience.
As someone with a relative working at the front line of mental health provision now, I found some of the script just not reflective enough of the circumstances of contemporary care, although the section where Robert muses on the reasons for such a high rate of mental health issues among black people being linked to decades of dismissal, generational trauma and ‘othering,’ was starkly current.
Ralph Davis’s jumpy, and at some points manic psychiatrist, Bruce, is at first apparently concerned for the welfare of his patient Chris, but we quickly question his motives – is he too just wanting to climb further up the greasy pole of the educated classes? Robert’s bullying and manipulation see him slide into the same despair we see in his patient.
While the acting is superb, the audience must bear a lot of tedious repetition, and I was left wondering if this was a deliberate reflection of the interminable processes of the NHS.
It’s a play that intends to show a debate; a hard conversation about how vulnerable people need to be treated as individuals, with specific needs, rather than just given a named condition and some prescriptions to make way for the next case study in a consultant’s thesis.
In a town with one of the largest and oldest mental health facilities in the UK – where the same painful, debilitating, lonely ‘disorders’ are being treated – the play did feel very Londoncentric (because that’s the setting).
Despite the laudably brilliant casting, was the overarching voice still one of white privilege? Get tickets, and get ready to debate… Blue/Orange runs at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until December 4. Box office and info on https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/