Whoever commissioned Blue/Orange’s revival at The Young Vic is an evil genius. Has there ever been a more appropriate piece of theatre to represent today’s political scene? Two waring parties – the young idealist and the authority figure, both fighting their damnedest for different morals within the NHS. This production is a brilliant showcase for Joe Penhall’s argumentative play, and a masterclass in acting from all involved.
Patient, Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) claims that he is the son of Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin, and that oranges are blue. Bruce his psychiatrist (Luke Norris) sees this as enough evidence to section Christopher for the immediate future, but his superior Robert (David Haig) fights against the notion, arguing he is no more than depressed and that they lack bed space. What follows is an olympic power struggle, as both doctors aim to use Christopher to fight their own professional and personal battles. Penhall’s terrifying portrayal of the NHS is aggressively social, but also hilarious. Bruce trying so hard to remain liberal with his dialogue, and Robert’s complete disregard for his own racist comments, are so relatable that you bypass cringing. It’s a genius piece of writing from Penhall; you wonder why we don’t see it performed more often.
Haig, one of the great character actors in the British theatre scene, is on fire. His performance has the air of our politicians – a buffoonish overcoat with a calculating interior. His final moments with Norris’s jumpy junior psychiatrist are a treat, especially as the latter holds his own so well. His journey from cool charisma to a shattered, deranged mess is so well detailed. Yet it’s Kaluuya who provides the emotional centre. Without Christopher we have no heart, and Kaluuya’s ability to switch on a dime between passiveness and ferocity is not only frightening, but very very sad to watch. Usually I’m averse to actors shouting, always believing that there can be more creative ways to show emotion. Here I welcomed it; there was so much pent up rage from all parties, the outbursts tempered the atmosphere and created a constant ebb and flow to the dynamics. Every time someone shouted it felt like a completely believable and necessary moment.
Matthew Xia provides nimble fluid direction, with all three actors spending the duration flying into different seats, so as to provide better audience sight-lines. This could potentially feel forced, but with each beat an actor moves, you feel a different energy, a power-play, and clear thought processes and dialogue between the characters that wasn’t even spoken. Jeremy Herbert might have designed one of the best Young Vic sets in recent memory. In fact, the show starts before we’re seated, walking backstage through immaculately crafted hospital corridors. The stage is only given two gangways, as we’re railed off from what is essentially a floating doctor’s office-island. The space provides the perfect arena, it’s brilliant simplicity at it’s best. That said, there are times Blue/Orange falters in it’s staging. This is such an internal play, certain scenes live or die by those small static interactions between the characters. Ultimately, everyone is going to see a different version of the same play from where they can draw their own conclusions (that’s pretty exciting), but I did leave wishing I could have seen a bit more. Actors like Norris tell so much through the nuances in their face, you want to be able to live it all, not just through his back-acting.
Blue/Orange is so on the button with where we are today, both socially and politically, that even a mediocre production would have resonated like an earthquake. As it stands, this is an unperceived triumph, with particular praise going to the great work from Haig, Kaluuya and Norris. Someone sit Jeremy Hunt in front of this now.
Blue/Orange is playing The Young Vic until 2nd July, see The Young Vic Theatre website.
Photo: Tristram Kenton