Review: Blue Orange. Royal and Derngate. Northampton

Blue Orange is written by Joe Penhall and is currently staged here at the Royal and Derngate Northampton. It is showing in the smaller ‘Royal’ space. It’s directed by James Dacre, and reveals itself to be a thrillingly intimate drama of mind games and severe mental health issues set in an unspecified London psychiatric hospital. It is a piece about strongly felt ethnic and professional agendas and control of a man under a serious mental health sectioning and about his potential release into society where he could prove a critical danger to himself and others, or improve. No matter what, this is one play richly deserving of a revival, and one play from which you will go away from the theatre discussing its acting, the play structure and still relevant themes of mental health issues amongst Britain’s ethnic groups, in particular the black population and its males, until the early hours. You may never look at the colour of oranges the same again.

In this superb iteration, R&D artistic director James Dacre has made a profoundly valuable and dramatically impactful casting decision and that is to cast a black actor in the role of Robert, a senior consultant psychiatrist. The key role has historically been cast as a white authority figure. Giles Terera plays Robert and, like all three of the cast, his acting is 100% on the button naturalistic and his command and delivery of Penhall’s hyper naturalistic dialogue is totally believable. So believable is it  that if you turned up to a hospital for an appointment and Terera came through the door as the senior consultant on your case you would have zero reason not to think he was the real deal.

Blue Orange deliberately confounds the story’s many layered arguments and mental health case results for a young twenty-four year old black guy called Christopher held under section 2 of the Mental Health Act.  It examines institutionally racist attitudes both spoken and action based bordering on doctor-patient violence.

Christopher (Michael Balogun giving a superb and sometimes frightening performance) has been sectioned by the police and is coming to the end of his compulsory twenty-eight days of assessment. He has been living in a small flat in west London in an area he doesn’t like and feels threatened by the public and police on a daily basis. His life is a series of ever building micro and macro aggressions against him. Christopher has purportedly moved around a lot in his life and his mother cannot be traced. He first declares that he is the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his mother has escaped Africa to live in hiding somewhere in Feltham. Later he changes his story and says that he is the son of the former boxer, Muhammad Ali. As onlookers we are unsure of Christopher’s mental health and delusions. He is complex: at turns funny and belligerent, charming and threatening. He reacts to perceived threats quickly. He is also extremely vulnerable and the plays’ two mental health practitioners, consultant Robert and doctor Bruce (Ralph Davis giving an extraordinarily likable and vulnerable performance) seem to exploit this to their own ends whilst purporting to help the progressively confused and angry Christopher.

Blue Orange deals with schizophrenia, an illness which frightens the majority of people, even those in the mental health professions. This reviewer choses to repeat one of Robert’s key speeches to Bruce, to illustrate this. It is one of the plays’ most theatrically arresting moments.

Robert: Schizophrenia is the worst pariah. One of the last great taboos. People don’t understand it. They don’t want to understand it! It scares them. It depresses them. It is not treatable with glamorous and intriguing wonder drugs like Prozac and Viagra. It isn’t newsworthy. It isn’t curable. It isn’t heroin or Ecstasy. It’s not the preserve of rock stars and supermodels and hip young authors. It is not a topic of dinner-party conversation. Organised crime gets better press. They make movies about junkies and alcoholics and gangsters and men, who drink too much; who fall over and beat their woman until bubbles come out of her nose, but schizophrenia, my friend, is just not in the phone book.

Interestingly when we think back to the beginning of the play where mental health registrar Bruce speaks to patient Christopher about the self-same subject he has a surprisingly different take on schizophrenia. He is almost in denial of its meaning.

Bruce: For example, people used to say ‘schizophrenic’ all the time. Such-and-such is schizophrenic. Because it’s two things at once. OK. Used to denote a divided agenda, a dual identity, the analogy of a split personality. Except we know now that schizophrenia doesn’t mean that at all. Split personality? Meaningless. OK? So, it’s an unhelpful term. It’s inaccurate. What we call a ‘misnomer’. And this is a sensitive subject. We must think carefully, be specific. Because it’s too… you know… it’s too serious.

Pause.

You were diagnosed with ‘Borderline Personality disorder’. What does that mean?

Pause

Borderline personality disorder. OK? Key word – borderline. Because, clinically speaking, you’re on the border between neurotic and psychotic.

This gripping and fascinating play in the melding of both drama and thematic matters, is set in one deep grey-walled, barely furnished consulting room with almost invisible doors and a raised walkway visually blurring the lines between a stark and scary psychological nightmare and a normal safe place. Simon Kenny’s set design is, and one might suppose – deliberately so, more like a soft cell prison space than a hospital. Either way, along with some atmospheric lighting (Charles Balfour) and sound design (Tony Gale) and occasional music score by Valgeir Sigurossen the combined impact of the whole serves to focus the audience’s attention in this most worthy of revived dramas. We are to some extents an imprisoned volunteer audience member throughout the duration of the play. It is split between being In Yer Face and In Yer Minds theatrical fare and worth every second of ‘confinement’.

After note: The audience on this Thursday afternoon showing is full of white middle aged/retired people. Quite typical of a matinee audience in any theatre across the country I guess. I would dearly love to be there should there be a more ethnically mixed audience watching this award-winning play that concerns them and their daily mental health more than any other. That would be an interesting time to hear their reactions to the pejorative epithet (repeated quite a few times on stage) ‘uppity nigger’. That would be an after-show debate, along with the challenging main themes of the play, I would love to hear on the bus back to Duston or the trains back to Nottingham, in my case.

Northamptonshire folk and beyond. Go and support this brilliant production directed by your Royal and Derngate’s artistic director, James Dacre. He has assembled an amazing cast for Blue Orange. It is an amazing play.

Theatre visits aren’t all about watching a nice musical featuring somebody you know from Eastenders or on Strictly. Though they are fun. Sometimes it’s about seeing  another side of a world culture’s life and perhaps thanking our lucky stars we have our mental acuities to appreciate our relative levels of personal sanity in this world. Here’s your chance to expand your mental understandings through top class theatre.

Blue Orange runs at two hours and fifteen minutes including interval. The action of the play takes place over a period of twenty-four hours. It runs until Saturday 4th December. You haven’t got long. Get booking.

Production photo credits: Marc Brenner

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