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2Heavy Productions performing Blue/Organge is, for Deborah Caulfiend, "depressingly believable yet unexpectedly energising."
Joe Penhall's award-winning play Blue/Orange covers several important cross-cutting themes, including professional power, mental-health care eligibility and racism. Add to this the diminution of individual human rights and the manipulation of truth in pursuit of personal ambition, and it might be a little heavy for some folk, but there are enough twist and turns to keep the audience focussed.
For me it was two hours well spent. The dialogue was gripping if slightly unreal. I mean, would anyone actually use the phrase “uppity nigger”, even in reported speech? I dread the answer.
The story of Blue/Orange centres around Chris, a likeable and bouncy black 30 something, impeccably played by Stephen Macaulay who also directed.
After 28 days in a mental-health hospital on a Section 2, Chris is packing his bags. However, his doctor, Bruce Flaherty, has other ideas.
Enter Robert Smith, Flaherty’s supervisor who has been called in for back-up.
Blue/Orange reminded me how much I enjoy a good argument, in which there are valid points on all sides, and no god-given right answers.
Here we have a kind of Catch-22 situation.
Flaherty is convinced something is seriously and clinically wrong with Chris. Another 28 days inside and he’ll reach a better diagnosis, thereby justifying the extension.
However, as Smith, the senior, hastens to point out, Section 3 requires a diagnosis first. Moreover, the underling has overlooked some crucial factors. “Culturally specific antecedent,” for example, that might suggest an alternative assessment, leading to an altogether different diagnosis from the one cherished by Flaherty.
Who knows the origins of his delusions? Maybe Chris’s mother was raped by the military. And so on.
So give him his freedom, send him home to Shepherds Bush. Smith tells Flaherty: “If we keep him longer, he’ll never be able to go home. He’ll become institutionalised.”
But Flaherty wants to make him better, and the truth is that Chris has no home, no community.
While the patient gets an occasional look-in, he’s either absent, angry or left speechless and confused. Or used. Either way, he’s after what he wants, and wants what he can get, which isn’t much because most of what he wants is bad for him, e.g. coffee, coke and other drugs.
Agendas multiply as the story unfolds. Hospital beds get a brief mention, but here’s the thing: Smith is doing a PhD about ethnicity and the diagnosis of psychosis. Chris would make an excellent research subject.
Flaherty could be a consultant himself one day, providing he plays the game.
Meanwhile, is Chris mad? He shouts and stares. People look at him funny. They scare him, he says. His dad was Idi Amin. The orange is blue.
I laugh a lot during this play, such as when Chris tells Flaherty about the voices (zombies?) outside his window: “You said you’d help me! I want double glazing. It’s like living in a biscuit tin.”
Smith’s advice is to laugh at the zombies (skin-heads?). He tells Chris: “You’re not sick. You need to be rehoused not locked up. I get scared too…”
I felt troubled, more or less throughout by Dan Booth’s portrayal of Robert Smith. I can’t put my finger on it, but it was not just a wardrobe issue. Beneath the bushy beard, Booth’s skin was too fresh, too pink. Take it from me, there’s more to being an older person than grey hair and great lines, which, by the way, were delivered too quickly for my purposes.
In contrast to this, I was completely convinced by tank-topped Flaherty (Tom Neill). He was the essence of angst, all curly arms and hand-to-face restlessness. I knew he was scared the moment he rolled up his sleeves.
A tendency for weed, in more ways than one, Flaherty cowed under the might of his hierarchical superior and erstwhile “friend”. He lost it several times, as one does when being stitched up, one’s words taken out of context and thrown back as racist. But he fought back against Smith with lines such as: “You want to be the edgiest egghead… with their pricks in each other’s pockets.”
Over-eager or under-achieving, Flaherty at least gives the impression that he cares about Chris. The question is, does Chris? His needs are clearly secondary to, and at the mercy of, the career aspirations of the other two men.
There isn’t a lot to go on, but Chris is clearly no stranger to power games himself. It’s just that, in the end, his expectations are so low.
Blue/Orange is an absorbing and highly entertaining drama with many insightful and funny moments. Geographically and time non-specific, it nevertheless strongly resonates with the current political agenda of cuts in health and other public services. I found it depressingly believable yet unexpectedly energising.
Shown on TV in 2005, now more than ever, Blue/Orange needs and deserves to be seen by large numbers, ideally with time to pick up on issues raised, with discussion and community outreach built into the programme.
BLUE ORANGE AT SOUTH HILL PARK ARTS CENTRE
Blue Orange is a play that concerns a black man who has been sectioned for 28 days. His psychiatrist is concerned that he is not ready for the hassles of the outside world but the senior consultant insists that it is the best thing for him. They argue…horribly…sometimes in front of the patient.
Steve Macaulay’s production of this play in which he also played Chris- the patient- was a roller coaster ride of passion, emotion and extreme behaviour. He had chosen instead of keeping a cool British tone with simmering undertones to allow each character to expose the raw reality inside them. This brought out one of the main aspects of the play and raised real doubts in the audience’s mind as to who was mad and who was sane.
The production plays with convention and expectation in a disturbing way. The consultant is bearded, wears open-toed sandals and behaves rather like a working class boy done good than a middle-class intellectual while the psychiatrist is a bundle of nervous energy and unpredictability rather than a grammar school boy fighting the system. The play could be seen as a dialectic about the nature of psychiatric treatment but here the conflicts are not rational and intellectual but gutsy and passionate. The approach demands performances of high intensity from each of the actors and they certainly deliver.
Daniel creates a character somewhat reminiscent in appearance and delivery of Ricky Gervais . He is thuggish, unprofessional, jokey, self obsessed and lacking in empathy. He sees things only from his preconceived point of view and corrupts the facts to suit his own agenda. Admittedly there were occasions when some of his words were hard to catch but then perhaps the character he was playing was ‘just like that’
Tom’s character is a bundle of nervous mannerisms mixed with a kind of apologetic aggression and on occasions his self control deserts him altogether while Steve’s performance as the character the issues are supposedly about veers from the excitable to the depressed in an entirely convincing way.
The huge pace and energy of the piece is beautifully counter-pointed with one or two startling silences that impact precisely because of the violent confusion on either side of them.
Steve Macaulay is a talented director worth looking out for. He has an original and exciting theatrical vision that enables us to see something we were familiar with and thought we understood as if it were strange and new and that is what art is all about.
CHRIS BERTRAND- JUNE 2012