Review: Blue/Orange

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Orange/BlueTackling the stigma associated with mental illness, the Baxter Theatre is offering a thought-provoking dark comedy from the award-winning British dramatist, Joe Penhall.

The script for Blue/Orange is set against the UK’s National Health Service, and centres around Christopher, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and the opinions of two doctors – one a young and idealistic novice, and the other a seasoned professional bursting with Machiavellian ambition. Inevitably the two clash heads over the course of treatment for Christopher’s illness. The crux of this conflict is not only the intriguing process of psychiatric diagnosis and the health industry in general, but also Christopher’s ethnic and social status.

Director Claire Stopford has secured a terrific group of talented actors for Blue/Orange, each bringing their own unique brand to the production. Andrew Buckland as always brings a precise attention to detail while the wizard of immaculate accents, Nicholas Pauling, hones in on the Britishness of the production, and Marty Kintu proffers an experimental and nuanced take on comedy. Stopford’s use of space and composition in some of the frames is not entirely faultless – during certain conflict segments, the actor’s position on stage renders his facial expression inaccessible to large sections of the audience, which can be somewhat distracting.

Production and Design head Patrick Curtis successfully recreates the cold and fluorescent clarity of the average NHS health centre with the Baxter’s cosy Golden Arrow Theatre stage. A simple airy all-white set with generic furniture alludes magnificently to the generalized elements of the public institution. While a work of this calibre traditionally demands a fragrant creativity in its visual design, Curtis’ subdued mood achieves a more realistic and appropriate setting for the play.

Andrew Buckland leads the production in the role of the older doctor Robert, and gives a masterfully effortless performance which leaves a lasting impression. Robert’s delusions of grandeur inspire just the right amount of sympathy and amusement, while his face expresses intermittent flickers of hope and intent. Whether he is rebelliously smoking in the public office or comically proving his points with veiled insults and a supercilious air, Buckland’s Robert steals the show with pompous bravado and acerbic wit.

Marty Kintu is wonderfully outlandish and instantly likeable as Christopher. His control over and use of his physicality enriches his character while providing an effervescent energy that elevates the play to theatre beyond words. Kintu’s naturally funny and goofy performance varies from subtle to slapstick, with a strong emphasis on mesmeric storytelling.

As the passionate young doctor Bruce, Nicholas Pauling has the arduous task as the ‘voice of reason’ with less flamboyant moments in the story. Pauling may often get upstaged by his unpredictable and livelier companions, but he taps into his Bruce’s self-restraint and delivers an ultimately genuine performance highlighted by a stirring monologue towards the end of the show. He also manages steadfastly to maintain his authentically British accent against the wavering versions of his co-stars.

Part of Blue/Orange’s success lies in the shifting sympathy of its audience. One moment Bruce’s youthful idealism is the pinnacle of reason; the next Robert’s paternalistic common sense seems more plausible and attractive. This contrast of opinions ultimately reaches fever pitch to the point where we’re wondering whether Christopher is the sanest of the three.

Mental illness can serve as an amazing dramatic tool in a play. It allows characters the freedom of expression to scream and shout in a manner which no ‘sane’ person ever would. Nonetheless Blue/Orange resists the urge to cherrypick the more theatrical and shocking elements of mental illnesses, and instead offers a fresh take on the rollercoaster ride between sanity and insanity.

Benn van der Westhuizen

Blue/Orange is currently running at The Baxter Theatre’s Golden Arrow Studio from 12 February to 14 March 2015.

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