Blue/Orange review – Joe Penhall’s power battle in the care system

Ustinov Studio, Bath
Penhall’s 2000 play, set in the world of psychiatric care, is revived by James Dacre in a production with some riveting debate

When it premiered in 2000, Joe Penhall’s play about a young black man’s entanglement – perhaps even entrapment – between two white doctors in the psychiatric care system incorporated potent debates on race, psychiatry and language. James Dacre’s production proves these arguments are still relevant, perhaps even without its new revisions, although the dramatic tension and intellectual complexities raised in the first half are let down by a strangely stalled second.

The most radical revision comes with a change in casting. The older, arrogant consultant psychiatrist with a God complex, Robert, traditionally played by a white actor, is black here. It changes the dynamic between the men, although the muscular power battle between the doctors (enacted through the manipulation of their patient) is still there, as brutal as any Mamet play and bound to its ever grubbier gladiatorial endgame.

Christopher (Michael Balogun) is the young man with a borderline personality disorder who is coming to the end of his 28-day detention in a mental-health unit (we are never explicitly told how he ended up there). The two doctors represent conflicting positions around his care: Robert (Giles Terera) thinks he should be back in the community before he becomes institutionalised; junior doctor Bruce (Ralph Davis) is ever more insistent that he has schizophrenia and should be permanently detained.

Simon Kenny’s set is not quite the boxing ring evoked by the original production but it has the same dimensions, with a dais around one side so that it seems as if the men are stepping down into the fray.

Christopher sometimes looks like a helpless child, sitting between two fighting parents. “Whose thoughts am I thinking?” he says desperately. Balogun inhabits his character’s rage, confusion and panic completely, giving the star performance in this production, although the other two actors keep us gripped, too.

Slowly turning up the tension, the first half of the play is a riveting debate. Both doctors’ integrity comes into question as they discuss their conflicting ideologies. Some of their arguments do feel dated – the allusion to Prozac as a wonder drug and Bruce’s belief that Christopher’s “schizophrenia” makes him inherently dangerous, which chimes with bygone moral panics around “care in the community”.

But a far more current debate on race arises and there is an edge-of-the-seat tension as their sparring match plays out. Terera’s Robert argues that the black community is misdiagnosed by an institutionally racist system, but he is also a self-serving and unpleasant character – a middle-class man brimming with privilege who coaches Christopher into seeing racial bias, at least in part for his own ends. Though Christopher comes to regard him as an ally, Robert arguably “others” his working-class patient in his own way.

Where our sympathies vacillate between the men’s complicated positions in the first half, the arguments repeat as the drama progresses, circling back on themselves, the power play becoming more naked and leeching away many of the grey areas and complexities, with both doctors appearing flatly villainous by the end.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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