Wasn’t it F R David who said – and I think it was – Words Don’t Come Easy To Me? Of course, he was “just a music man”, and his “melodies were his best friend”, but his “words were coming out wrong”. It’s a common problem, and rarely seen more acutely than in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which won both the Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play when it first appeared in 2000. Now James Dacre, Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, has directed a new production of the play which opened in Bath a few weeks ago, visited Oxford en route, and has now finally come to its spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate.
The set-up is deceptively simple. At an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, patient Christopher is itching to leave, having already spent 28 days in its care. Dr Bruce Flaherty, under whose supervision Christopher has been treated, isn’t sure he’s ready to leave, and asks Senior Consultant Robert Smith to sit in on a final consultation for his opinion. Both Robert and Christopher are adamant that he should leave – although for different reasons. Attempting to make Christopher reveal his true mental state, Bruce offers him an orange to eat and challenges him to tell Robert what he thinks its colour is. Blue, is Christopher’s response. And the fruit inside? Also blue. He also manages to make Christopher reveal that his father is Field Marshal Idi Amin of Uganda; perhaps unsurprisingly as he was known as Dada to his friends. Robert suggests that he and Christopher should have a private consultation together. But what is the outcome of that consultation? Are Robert’s motives for wanting Christopher to leave in everyone’s best interests? Has Bruce been as correct in his dealings with Christopher as he should have? And is Christopher satisfied with the way he has been treated? You’ll have to see the play to find out!
This is a cunning play that openly exposes all its secrets without the audience realising it, and then asks us to consider what we had heard earlier and understand it now in a different light. With only three scenes/conversations, all taking place within 24 hours, and all in the same consulting room, it very nearly observes the traditional unities of classical drama. Even the requirement for any cataclysmic event to happen off-stage is recognised, with the important hospital management meeting taking place in a different room whilst we’re all enjoying the interval. It’s fascinating to see the unities being observed in a modern play. It certainly concentrates the mind.
Nevertheless, the play takes a number of themes, from the obvious coping with life in the NHS, to power struggles between colleagues, racial equality within a range of relationships and situations including that of healthcare, and trust and deception. Joe Penhall has slightly revised the play for audiences twenty years on, and for the first time the role of Robert is performed by a Black actor, which changes the racial imbalance of the play in the other direction and adds a different level of complexity to the disagreements that all the characters face. There’s also this question of words. F R David was right, they don’t come easy, or at least the right words don’t. Bruce insists to Christopher that you can’t use the word crazy anymore, and schizophrenia is a complete no-no. He will later discover that there are many other words you can’t use, even when you’re quoting someone else.
There’s no doubt this is a very wordy play; and in the first Act in particular, the conversations become extremely intense, and at times you need to keep your wits about you to make sure you follow everything that’s said. However, after the interval, the wordiness gives way to a much more emotional involvement from all three characters, the interchanges become much livelier, and the intensity changes from intellectual to pure drama. You never really know which way the plot is going to twist, and then it twists again in its final moments. It’s one of those splendid plays that become even more splendid the more you think about it after curtain down. Hidden depths, character give-aways, secret agendas continue to become clearer as you reflect on what’s happened.
Simon Kenny’s simple but effective design reveals the grey, austere consulting room, its only features being three chairs, a bowl of oranges and a water-cooler. Deliberately harsh lighting emphasises the claustrophobic box nature of the room and adds to the strangely unsettling image presented to us. Composer Valgeir SigurÞsson’s haunting incidental music creeps in softly at odd moments to unsettle us even more.
The three characters are all given tremendous performances by a sterling cast. Ralph Davis gives an excellent portrayal of a rather dishevelled but strict doctor who works all the hours under the sun in his performance as Bruce, quickly getting aggravated when his patience is tried a little too far, not realising the traps that have been set for him. Giles Terera is every bit as excellent as you would expect as the outwardly pleasant, inwardly manipulative Robert, putting his research before his patient’s wellbeing, and switching from old pal to arch enemy on the turn of a sixpence. But for me the discovery of this production is the amazing performance by Michael Balogun, whom we last saw as Macduff in Chichester (at least until the glass floor shattered). Here he plays Christopher, channelling all the emotions of a mental health patient railing against the machine, and conveying all the aspects of this complicated character from the wide-eyed innocent to the courtroom cynic.
A very strong production of a very strong play. It continues at the Royal and Derngate until 4th December- after which, who knows? But I reckon it could fit very nicely into an intimate West End theatre.
Production photos by Marc Brenner