Lion Theatre Company’s production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange began with buzzing energy. Christopher (Wesley Milligan), a young black man is twitching with excitement. He is about to be let out of psychiatric care after a “delicate incident” at his local market. However, the (equally young) doctor Emma (Carrie Gaunt) in charge of his case is convinced that he suffers from something worse than borderline personality disorder, and has invited her mentor, Robert (Ruari Hutchinson), to sit in on the session. Robert takes an almost laissez-faire, non-interfering stance, insisting with equal vehemence that Emma cannot keep Christopher in any longer, with taxpayers’ money being one of the several reasons given. What follows is a battle of wills, with Christopher caught in the middle. The slightly skewed, in-the-round stage set works excellently, drawing the audience into the boxing ring where the three characters fight it out, as well as creating the intimate atmosphere of a clinical conference room. The only minor drawback would be not being able to see an actor’s face, if you happen to be seated directly behind the back of a character’s chair.
Much of the success of the play can be attributed to Penhall and the actors’ abilities to keep the audience on their toes by constantly shifting our sympathies. One moment you believe in Emma’s protective idealism, the next you are swayed by Robert’s fatherly tone and seemingly common sense, thus never really having a firm footing regarding the characters’ opinions. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that they are both more concerned with proving their respective views and pet theories than dealing with Christopher’s situation, whom they use as a pawn between them.
What makes this production a must-watch is the impeccable standard of acting delivered by the three actors in roles that are nothing short of challenging. Milligan, with his nervous ticks, moving constantly to a beat only he can hear, shows us just how difficult it can be to generalize a mentally ill person and reach them without understanding their circumstances. Hutchinson projected calm and collected authority, and his sardonic laughs and the way he dealt with those below him in an almost surgical manner were villainously likeable. He exuded a brisk energy and old-school charm throughout, yet executed Penhall’s creation of Robert as a pretentious, patronizing smooth-talker very well too – his knotted, complex character is possibly my favorite of the three. Gaunt captured perfectly her character’s inexperience and her earnestness and capacity for empathy. The tough and obstinate side of Emma was also portrayed superbly, which made her breakdown in Act 2 all the more heartbreaking. A uniform high quality of acting can only mean that Qasim Salam’s direction was equally amazing.
Blue/Orange deals with the issues of madness and race. It blends discussion of the ways in which race and mental health intersect, and it raises moral questions as to what is acceptable and unacceptable when dealing with treatment of mental patients. It also asks the age old question of “who’s mad and who’s sane?” – with twists and turns of wit and insight. Definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in controversial questions about cultural assumptions, racial prejudice, and mental treatments (and also if you want to see how the title relates).