Joe Penhall’s blue/orange is the second dialogue heavy ‘issue play’ that Juliet Forster has directed at York Theatre Royal. The first was Blackbird by David Harrower, and once again, for play and playwright it felt like an entirely uninspired take on a basic premise. A single argument hammered home a hundred times, in only a few different ways. Moving from two-hander to three-hander in blue/orange, this effort was no more exciting or complex for having another body on stage.
The set and lighting, which need not have been anything ornate, was a rather literal take on the title of the play, a nightmare in blue and orange. Part of Christopher’s (Lekan Lawal) condition is that he sees blue as orange and the visual representation of that fact, a clashing checkered carpet, flopped over the stage. The characters reflected this literal reading and were unfortunately pantomimic caricatures instead of thoughtful responses to the play text. Michael Beckley provided a body popping consultant called Robert, twitching with each line as he raged against Bruce (Jonathan Race), the down-to-earth-liberal-minded-everyman-just-trying-to-do-the-right-thing-kinda-guy. The two of them espoused their different ideas on the nature of care for mental health patients, the connotations of schizophrenia diagnosis and the Welsh Rarebit that Bruce’s wife so kindly made after rugby. In the middle of all this sits Christopher, a patient just hours from release who claims his father is the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. An argument ensues between the staff as Bruce wants to keep him in for more tests and Robert wants to free up beds. The tone is very much set from the moment Robert snaps out of his fraternal pretence and lapses into what appears to be a caffeine-induced power trip, the victim of which is the new boy, Bruce. As soon as the characters are established, the rest is argument. Unfortunately for those onstage, their characters seemed to go nowhere. The big question of whether Christopher really is the son of Amin, is answered. The moralistic Bruce keeps on fighting against the sage Robert and two acts go by – on and on the arguments go. One steals the upper hand of the other, Christopher does something theatrically mad, one coerces something out of the other, ad nauseum.
The pertinent question that went unanswered was why anyone would bother performing this play. There is nothing incendiary, in-yer-face or groundbreaking about this play. Where Penhall’s didactic style might once have been an interesting response to what is undeniably still an issue within the medical profession, now it is not. Just a little over a decade later it feels deflated, already well past the sell-by date. Where Lisle Turner’s The Idiot Colony was brave enough to confront mental illness, excuse the pun, head on, blue/orange is directionless, resorting to cheap laughs and the odd provocative use of racial stereotypes. The way out for this production would have been clear decision-making, real direction. Where the audience were constantly nudged towards siding with Bruce, it would have been more interesting to tone down Beckley’s performance as Robert split the audiences’ allegiances. Ultimately what let the production down is as black and white as blue is not orange, the text.