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Review of Blue/Orange at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

The challenging and socially relevant Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall was published in 2000 and back then, this caustic exploration of mental health, and more specifically black mental health issues, was a tremendously relevant play. When it debuted on stage in London, the cast of just three was played by Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Director James Dacre doesn't have those names to play with so much in his cast, however here, he has worked with the writer himself to rework the play for a more modern audience. Does it still shock, and is the relevance still there today?

Sadly, perhaps, the answer is yes, as doctors Bruce Flaherty and Robert Smith come to verbal blows over the health of patient Christopher, at times, you feel 21 years shed little light on how mental health is approached. Many references in the script, still sit unquestionably in the year 2000, however, with this reworking, one thing has changed dramatically. In the original version of the play, the two doctors arguing over Christopher were both white, here, Bruce is black. It is an interesting change to the dynamic that you would think would tilt the whole balance of the play off-kilter. Fortunately, it doesn't, while you can at times hear the words of Smith coming from a white character, the area of his research does have strong emphasis that a black doctor would be trying to cut through the mistreatment of black patients, this dramatic change does therefore work unquestionably.

The cast are all exemplary in this production. Michael Balogun is hypnotic as patient Christopher, totally possessing on stage his character and not giving too much away too early with his actual mental status. It is a curiosity of the play and a neat trick perhaps, that we never learn specifically what left Christopher in this hospital, and as a result, with Balogun's own performance, we are never sure of his characters true health.

This is the perfect spin on the situation for Ralph Davis as Bruce, and Giles Terera as Robert, the two doctors at blows over the correct method of treatment. Bruce is all for keeping Michael in hospital, with a Section 3, his motive unclear, maybe to make his mark for this trainee doctor? As Bruce, Davis is excellent, having his own accent/descent through the course of the play as he battles the "authority" and his true belief of Christopher's health.

Robert feels he is the authority at times, and wants, and needs almost, Christopher to be released. His motives, a book maybe? Again, it is unclear, as is the whole purpose of this play, to unnerve, teach, and confuse on who is actually the controlling factor, and who indeed has control over their own life. Terera simmers at the sidelines much of the time, and seemingly guides events, it is an understated performance, which calms and shocks in equal measure. Robert is, by qualification and experience, the puppeteer controlling all of the events to suit his needs, and perhaps, doesn't even care, who suffers as a result.

Simon Kenny's excellent clean and sharp set doesn't hide the fact that this is a boxing ring for a, mostly, verbel bout and relishes in it dull grey colour scheme, drawing your eyes to the oranges in the bowl at the centre. There is equally clinical lighting from Charles Balfour, completing the hospital feel. Underlayed on this is a brooding, almost not there, sound design by Tony Gayle and with Valgeir Sigurđsson's music, lingering just menacingly in the background much of the time, except in Dacre's trademark, sharp snappy sounds of scenes shifting, for which he is now well-known.

It is a brilliant, and uncomfortable play, full of triggers that some might need to be sure they are comfortable with, but liberally sprinkled with a tremendous amount of humour, so much more than you might expect of the piece. It is relevant, current, even 21 years down the line, and Blue/Orange deserves an excellent audience as it continues its run at the Royal & Derngate until the 4th December.

As relevant as ever, this 21 year old piece deserves and needs to be seen.

Performance reviewed: Tuesday 23rd November 2021 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.
Blue/Orange runs at Royal & Derngate until Saturday 4th December 2021

For further details about the Royal & Derngate see their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk

BLUE/ORANGE is a A ROYAL & DERNGATE, NORTHAMPTON, OXFORD PLAYHOUSE AND THEATRE ROYAL BATH PRODUCTIONS CO-PRODUCTION

Production photos: Marc Brenner


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