Matthew Xia’s latest production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange at the Young Vic is an immersive experience from the start, opening with high energy and running through a full gauntlet of heightened emotions before it’s out. Three excellent actors and a difficult subject matter make it a gripping performance from start to finish.
Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black Londoner, is looking forward to being de-sectioned after being confined for a month. His young doctor Bruce (Luke Norris) is worried that Christopher has not received the care he needs, and wants him to stay. Senior consultant Robert (David Haig), however, ultimately wants Christopher released – in part as the “path of least resistance”, and in part for selfish academic motivations. As the three men butt heads over the course of three meetings, the play navigates themes covering racial prejudice, perceptions of mental illness and healthcare politics. It’s a taut and weighty, though at the same time riddled with energy and humour.
First premiered in 2000, Blue/Orange’s key strength comes in its ambiguity. Is the system failing because of racism, because of difficulties in diagnosing mental health, or because of personal ambitions? None of the characters are clearly in the right, and Daniel Kaluuya gives such a bold and dynamic performance that you’re constantly left unsure as to how ill he is.
That feeds perfectly into the premise of the play. We don’t know how bad Christopher’s illness is, or what’s the best course of action for him, but these two stubborn doctors are both adamant that they do. To the degree that they furiously argue about it while neglected Christopher becomes increasingly unsettled.
The painfully relevant premise that doesn’t offer any easy answers. The frequent shifts of sympthay and tone are expertly handled by the cast – and while massive credit is due for Kaluuya’s performance, to my mind it was Haig that really shone. His friendly, though patronising, father figure becomes a malevolent schemer at a moment’s notice – and jumps back just as quickly. His skill is in presenting a man in control on the surface that you just know, from very early on, is brimming with the worst kind of power and anger issues.
It’s not a flawless play – at times Robert’s theories seem a little overblown and slow things down somewhat. And the nature of the clash between Robert and Bruce inevitably leads to less attention being given to Christopher, a character everyone’s likely to want to see more of and learn more about. But that’s the point, really – 2 ambitious, academic men are so caught up in their own interests that they fail to really care for the man who needs help.
A powerful premise, an excellent production, and a fine showcase for the skills of three very talented actors. The show runs until 2nd July, find out more here.