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Blue/Orange at Birmingham Rep

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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Funny, far-sighted and just a bit frightening
Joe Penhall's play set in a mental institution was first staged nearly 20 years ago and yet it feels incredibly contemporary. Focussing on the experiences of young black man Christopher as he meets the might of doctors and consultants who can decide his fate, it is funny, far-sighted and also just a little bit frightening as we see just how powerful these institutions can be.

Christopher's future lies in the hands of two specialists with very different views and, as they clash over his diagnosis and his treatment, they lose sight of the patient in what becomes a battle of wills, beliefs and egos.

Blue/Orange at Birmingham Rep
Blue/Orange at Birmingham Rep

Christopher suffers from a range of problems, telling the doctors he is the son of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, claiming an orange is blue, stating his neighbours throw bananas at him and saying skinheads shout abuse when they see him. And while some of these issues could be labelled as paranoia, psychosis, schizophrenia and delusions – others may simply be the problems faced by a young black man stigmatised by society.

Ivan Oyik is in his last year of training at Guildford School of Acting and clearly has a strong future ahead of him as he is outstanding as Christopher. In the two-and-a-half hour production, he goes through every emotion possible as he struggles with his own issues but is also faced with two battling doctors with him in the middle. One moment he is full of manic energy and outpourings of speech, at others he silently withdraws, at others he is indignant, at others uncertain. There is a tragic vulnerability to him as he swings back and forth between his own mental anguish while also faced with specialists who will use him for their own benefit.

Thomas Coombes plays Bruce his apparently well-meaning psychiatrist who confuses his boundaries, oversteps the mark, uses inappropriate language and is so sure he knows what is best for Christopher he stops listening to his own patient. As things unravel we feel some sympathy for Bruce as a human being equally caught in an unjust system but you wouldn't want him as your psychiatrist.

Then there's senior consultant Robert played with an urbane charm by Richard Lintern, best-known to audiences as Thomas Chamberlain in television's Silent Witness. Initially, we all fall for Robert's smooth-talking and seemingly genuine care for Christopher but as he speaks he also gradually reveals his own pride and prejudices until his ruthless desire to prove he is right puts everyone at risk.

Penhall's writing is very sharp as it unpeels the onion layers until we see that each person is caught up in their own versions of truth, their own prejudices and their own self-survival. There are speeches which will literally take your breath away they are so outrageous and yet are presented by their speakers as totally acceptable truths – in their views. Initially, we believe Christopher to be the one with mental health issues and the doctors to be the sane ones but as the story unfolds our perspective changes until we wonder just who is the most deranged.

Ivan Oyik in Blue/Orange
Ivan Oyik as Christopher

Amelia Hankin's box-like design works brilliantly in The Rep's main house with the corner of the box jutting into the auditorium and pulling the audience into the consulting room so that we feel its claustrophobia and the desire to escape. Directed by Daniel Bailey, there is no let-up in the drama as the three men's fates hang in the balance.

Blue/Orange challenges us on many levels – with questions about race, mental health and power dynamics. It's frightening to see how an institution can work so effectively to potentially make or break both its patients and its staff. And while it gives us all plenty to reflect on, it's also an entertaining piece of drama which will have you questioning where truth and opinion lie.

With a cast of just three and a tightly concentrate,d story this is a gem of a play – it's a shame that, at the moment, is has such a short run just here in Birmingham.

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Why? Drama is funny, far-sighted and frightening
When: Until 16 Feb
Phone: 0121 236 4455
Where: Birmingham Rep
Cost: from £15
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