“Why do you think you’re here?”
Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange is the penultimate production to be played in the main space at the Arcola Theatre before their enforced move to new premises. Celebrating its tenth anniversary with its first London revival, Tiata Fahodzi, a UK theatre company set up to provide an African cultural perspective to British theatre, have reworked this three-hander into an all-female production, changing the gender of all three of its protagonists. This is a review of the final preview performance.
Set in October 2002 in an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, Juliet, a young black woman, has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and is coming to the end of her period of commitment. Emily, her psychiatrist who is in her first year of practising has her doubts about Juliet’s suitability to be released, suspecting that she may have schizophrenia and has invited her superior, Hilary, to witness her final interview with her patient with the hope of having her recommitted. What we soon come to realise though is that Juliet’s interests are not necessarily at the forefront of the minds of the doctors as there is much more at stake here for these two women.
It is an incisive look at race and mental illness and how equipped our health service is to deal with cultural sensitivities in a time of rising political correctness but also in the diagnostic procedures that have been worked up at a time before ethnic considerations came into play. To be honest, I enjoyed the show less when it was investigating psychological diagnostic practices in considerable depth and more when it was about the sparring between the two doctors, throwing up questions about academic advancement versus professional ethics and the power held by supervisors over the careers of their juniors. Schlesinger captures the arrogance of the chain-smoking, would-be professor beautifully and relishes her verbal battles with Esther Hall’s idealistic newbie who is amusingly frustrated at both the manoeuvrings of her superior and the unpredictable randomness of her patient.
I wasn’t convinced by Ayesha Antoine as the patient though: her Juliet is such an impenetrable character and I think it needs more insight, more subtlety in painting the nuances so that the question of her sanity is always in, well, question. I am sure it is hard to play mental illness effectively and this was a preview, but it needs more ambiguity here to give the requisite weight to the ostensibly sane passages that accompany the manic sequences where she is extremely convincing.
One of the best things about the Arcola has been the sheer flexibility of its space and the consistently inventive ways in which pieces have been staged and ULTZ’s design here is no different for being ingenious. He has constructed a full psychiatrist’s office around which the audience sit on all four sides, peering in through the window spaces as in an observation chamber. This allows for Jo Joelson to initially use the harsh over-bright office lighting we’re all so familiar with to present the first act and then subtly introducing variations as the action and motivations of all concerned becomes increasingly murky, all the while keeping a spotlight on the bowl of oranges, Juliet’s perception of which lends the show its title. The only bum note was the thumping African music which played before the show started and in the interval, it felt like the only real time that this African perspective was pushed into this production and came across as intrusive.
As a rather random aside, this ended up being one of those occasions where I wished I hadn’t read the programme before the show started. Being made so aware of the show’s award-winning pedigree raised my expectations but in mentioning its stellar original cast of Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetel Ejiofor (which initially provoked major play-envy in me) it doesn’t really help in establishing this an independent production. As it was, I couldn’t help but see Bill Nighy-isms in Schlesinger’s performance despite having only just learned five minutes previously that he was in the original production and that the role was written specifically for him.
So ultimately, a slightly underwhelming experience for me. I imagine that this production will hold more interest for people who saw the original all-male cast as the contrasting dynamics should be most interesting to compare and I will be interested to read what people have to say about what, if any, difference it made. Coming to it for the first time though, it didn’t really feel like an award-winning play as it came across as slightly unbalanced with a weak second act and a propensity for unnecessary verbiage which sometimes dulls the rapier-sharp dialogue that is threaded throughout. And if you ask me, those oranges are definitely orange.