Review: BLUE/ORANGE, Young Vic, May 19 2016

By: May. 20, 2016
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Under the harsh strip lights and amongst the plastic chairs, in an environment that the British State has made uniquely its own in the 21st century, three men circle each other in a kind of Mexican standoff in which words are weapons.

Christopher is black, charismatic and clever and wants to get out of his involuntary incarceration in a secure mental hospital. The problem is that he is convinced that Idi Amin is his father and that oranges are actually blue. Bruce is, like Christopher, twenty-something, a junior doctor with ambition who holds the firm opinion that Christopher should stay exactly where he is. Robert is the Head of Department and Bruce's mentor - he thinks Christopher should be out, living in his community, freeing up a precious bed. He also wants to see what happens to Christopher on the outside, as this lad might just be the case study Robert needs to complete his book and get his much desired professorship.

Joe Penhall's play won a fistful of awards when first performed at The National in 2000 and its revival could hardly be more timely with mental health provision on the political agenda and the role of junior doctors pored over in detail in the media. Of course, this play also deals with issues concerning race, professional boundaries, empowerment and, well, lots and lots more. Don't forget that it's very funny too, if that sounded a bit too Newsnighty for you!

The good in this production is very good indeed. Luke Norris projects Bruce's earnest idealism well, but also allows the hidden alpha male to come through at exactly the right times. David Haig could have made Robert a one-dimensional pompous buffoon (think James Robertson-Justice in a Carry-On) but he vests sufficient empathy in his out-of-touch consultant for us to see his case. Daniel Kaluuya shines brilliantly as a man veering between cocksure strutting and cowering insecurity, fired by wholly justified anger - we never stop wanting the best for Christopher, even if his behaviour is often very odd.

All that said, and after a transfixing first two acts, the third act simply collapses into a sea of contradictions. Comedy, even comedy as dark as this, needs grounding in credible characters and, while Christopher remains wholly human, pitifully so at times when his doctors squabble about his fate as if he's not present, listening, Bruce and Robert become so extreme that I stopped believing in them and, fatally, consequently stopped caring about them. Would events unravel as quickly as they did - within 24 hours? Would any experienced inner London doctor be quite as stupid (in a professional context) as Robert? Would Bruce really shout and scream the things he did with an open door and (probably) surveillance cameras capturing his actions?

Even pushed to extremes by stress, this is not plausible behaviour for two such highly trained men. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and in MASH (both of which come to mind as the play unfolds), the question of who is actually mad and who is sane is also in play, but the medics, crucially, retain their "medicness" throughout, no matter how perverted.

Alas, I'm more willing to believe in blue oranges than I am in these doctors.