Theatre review: Blue/Orange

A revisit of a classic play about race and mental health.

THEATRE 180 presents the multi-award-winning play, Blue/Orange, in Perth, Western Australia, 22 years after its premiere at the Royal National Theatre in London.

English-Australian playwright, Joe Penhall, lauded for his insightful writing, has created a darkly comic exposé of the National Health System as it was in the early 2000s, addressing issues of systemic racism and the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the UK.

Blue/Orange is set in a London psychiatric hospital. A young man, Christopher, has reached the end of a 28-day detention and appears keen to go home. However, he is adamant that oranges are the colour blue and that his father is Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. His psychiatrist, Bruce, is concerned that Christopher still requires professional care, and seeks advice from senior consultant and mentor, Robert, who wants to discharge the patient, mostly because in the hospital ‘there are not enough beds’.

Stuart Halusz, Artistic Director of THEATRE 180, has expertly shaped a production that explores disturbing narratives about power, prejudice, and ambition within the context of health care, provokes emotion, and invites an audience response to derisive humour.

The theatrical design is understated, with sparse set, appropriate costuming, restrained lighting, and an unobtrusive soundscape working to support the script.

The set and costume design by Neil Sheriff subtly enhances the narrative. The stage is configured as a raised boxing ring as in the original production; the small arena tightly surrounded by audience on all four sides. Three nondescript chairs in corners face a clear coffee table in the centre of the square stage, on which sits a large glass bowl filled with bright oranges.

Garry Ferguson’s diffuse lighting design creates a sense of intimacy as audience members can see each other across the stage throughout the performance. Slim LED lights installed on the frame of the set allude to the stark lights of a clinical ward.

The soundscape by composer, Noah Ivulich, assists to transition scenes, generating ambient tension. In synergy with sound, there is excellent use of actors’ bodies in slow motion movement which momentarily breaks the dialogue through non-verbal communication. 

Christopher (Tinashe Mangwana) jogs through the audience and onto the stage in a tracksuit, happy and a little unhinged as he shortly declares, ‘I’m a free man’. Mangwana’s delightful energy allows for levity even in moments of sadness and pain. The delivery of his comic lines elicits laughter; audiences warmly embracing his stage presence. 

Bruce (Jarryd Dobson) questions whether Christopher is ready to go home: the two men pacing as they face each other, the conversation bouncing from questions of health, and free will to that of ethnicity, as Christopher yells that others think he is ‘an uppity nigger’. Dobson and Mangwana develop energised banter, a repartee that skirts across issues of racism, ethnicity, schizophrenia, home, health, and identity.

As Robert (Andrew Lewis) challenges Bruce, the two psychiatrists’ ugly ambitions, prejudice, and vanities become apparent. When Robert arrogantly declares, ‘but you have to play the game’, Lewis alters the tone in the room through his measured delivery, and his discursive conversations escalate the drama.

The play is culturally specific to the UK in the early 2000s. Although there have been shifts in the understanding and treatment of mental health issues in the last 20 years, the play’s commentary on some aspects of the health system still resonates with uncomfortable truths. 

Read: Exhibition review: WHEN I AM NOT THERE

Blue/Orange is a long and verbose play dominated by men whose words are red tape. The production is dense with issues, diminished at times through the competing agenda of each. The writing is sardonic and witty, requiring exceptional delivery to allow for comic relief. Language is used to manipulate, confuse, unsettle, and challenge. In all, it is a thought-provoking experience. 

Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall
Burt Memorial Hall, Perth, Western Australia 
Director: Stuart Halusz   
Set & Costume Designer: Neil Sheriff
Sound Designer & Composer: Noah Ivulich  
Lighting Designer: Garry Ferguson
Cast: Tinashe Mangwana, Jarryd Dobson, Andrew Lewis

Tickets: $47.29 – $57.68

Blue/Orange will be performed until 3 September 2022

Lucinda Coleman is an Adjunct Lecturer (Research) and sessional Lecturer in Performance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University.