Blue/Orange review – smarm, charm and raw emotion in gladiatorial mental health drama

When Blue/Orange was first staged almost two decades ago, its critique of a self-serving psychiatric system felt shockingly timely. Joe Penhall’s gladiatorial drama of a young black patient caught between the clashing ideologies and egos of two white doctors showed them to be led by careerism, dogma and unexamined prejudice.

That this revival feels just as topical, though for different reasons, is a theatrical achievement but also a reflection on the failings of the mental health system, especially when set against recent discussions about the disproportionate number of black people detained as inpatients.

Its director, Daniel Bailey, decided to stage it in its original form rather than updating to the present-day to show “not much has been done since”. Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is the young black man with a borderline personality disorder who believes himself to be the son of the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He is in high spirits on his last day of a 28-day detention in a secure ward, although Bruce (Thomas Coombes), a trainee doctor, thinks him a risk and hopes to keep him in hospital.

Watch a video about the Rep’s Blue/Orange

The play’s central conflict is set when clinical consultant, Robert (Richard Lintern) steps in to oversee the case and Christopher becomes a pawn in their battle to determine where he belongs: in a long-term ward or back in his old life working a fruit stall as a free, if fragile, man.

The entire drama takes place in a meeting room and Amelia Jane Hankin’s set is not the boxing ring of the original, giving little away with its nondescript design – chairs, strip lights, a water-cooler and pot plant.

Penhall’s script breathes tension into this static space through the men’s power play and the constantly shifting moral ground on which they stand. Bruce is the Chino-wearing idealist who feels a duty not to abandon Christopher. Yet he is unwilling to interrogate his assumptions and is locked zealously into the belief that his diagnosis is right. Robert, satirised for his cavalier attitude and upper middle-class vanities, is at once reactionary and more aware than Bruce of the racial bias in white western psychiatry (“the system is flawed”). The play’s refusal to hand over a conventional villain who embodies the “wrong” side of the debate gives it both its intellectual richness and psychological complexity.

‘Seemingly unaware of the power he gains over the doctors’ … Ivan Oyik as Christopher. Photograph: Myah Jeffers

Coombes is initially hesitant as Bruce, though far steadier in his face-offs with Robert and Christopher in the second act. Oyik’s Christopher is seemingly unaware of the power he gains over the doctors. If this seems naive, there is a raw edge to his performance in his best moments. Lintern is convincingly smarmy as Robert, his switch from charm to bullying rage gradual; he then manipulates his patient to point score rather than heal. The chemistry between the three men is not immediate but builds over time. By the second act, the stakes have been raised and the humour is replaced by chicanery, menace and manipulation.

This play is staged as part of the theatre’s broader project to promote positive mental health among young African-Caribbean people: it becomes an urgent part of the real world as well as an incendiary piece of theatre.

At Birmingham Repertory theatre until 16 February.

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