Blue / Orange
Royal and Derngate Theatre
Reviewed – 23rd November 2021
“Blue/Orange remains a thought-provoking and relevant play, well-worthy of this new revised production”
This award-winning play by Joe Penhall is set in a London NHS psychiatric hospital where two doctors discuss a possible diagnosis for their patient – schizophrenia, psychosis, neurosis, borderline personality disorder – but we don’t need to fully understand these terms. The crux of the matter is that these two psychiatrists control the freedom of the third man.
The set (Designer Simon Kenny) is a closed black box, no windows, one concealed door. A square on the floor is marked out by a bright white light. Two institutional plastic chairs face each other confrontationally, between them a low table and on it a fruit bowl containing some oranges. Above the stage is suspended a large black block on which a digital clock face is projected showing us the time at the start of each act. The action of the play takes place over a period of one day – the final twenty-four hours before the patient is either free to leave the hospital or he is re-sectioned and detained for a further period.
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This is an excellent production. The direction of the players around the space is first-rate (Director James Dacre) and it is hard to find fault in the performances of the three actors. The patient Christopher (Michael Balogun), in grey hoodie, tracky bottoms and trainers, prowls around the space, a caged bear. His moods swing from high spirits to near depression, his movements range from bouncing across the stage to sinking deep in a chair. Balogun convinces us entirely. This man is disturbed, volatile and unpredictable. For him, the oranges in the bowl look blue and, when cut into, the flesh of the orange is blue too. But is he a danger either to himself or others?
Registrar Bruce (Ralph Davis), dressed in grey casual work attire (no men in white coats here), ID lanyard around his neck, suspects that Chris is sicker than he appears and wants to keep him in hospital before his condition deteriorates. But to instruct so means going against the wishes of the Authority and Bruce has his own career ambitions to think about.
Consultant Robert (Giles Terera), in a crisp shirt and smart grey suit and tie, wants Chris released within the day. But Robert also has his own agenda, research to do and a book to write, so how far can he be trusted? Terera shows the self-importance of this man from his first appearance, dominating the space and exuding the character’s class and privilege through perfect posture and enunciation.
The square of the consulting room begins to resemble a sporting arena as both doctors attempt to score points off each other, playing off their patient between them, until just one of them remains standing.
Twenty years since its first production, Blue/Orange remains a thought-provoking and relevant play, well-worthy of this new revised production. And the sincere and honest performances of this cast make a memorable piece of theatre.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Marc Brenner
Blue / Orange
Royal and Derngate Theatre until 4th December
Previously reviewed at this venue in 2021:
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Reviewed – 12th March 2021
“Set in a time of lockdown it is uncomfortably portentous, and it triggers the frightening thought that society might be stuck there”
When Oscar Wilde unleashed “The Picture of Dorian Gray” onto the world back in 1890, the Irish Times said it was ‘published to some scandal’ and the Daily Chronicle stated that it would ‘taint every young mind that comes in contact with it’. It is debatable whether Wilde courted such a reception, and it is difficult to imagine a similarly outraged reaction were it to be unveiled in today’s climate; but I’m sure he would have been proud of this modernised re-telling of the story. Not so much for the narrative itself but for the way it emulates the original’s intention to challenge the social mores of society. This production couldn’t be more up to date if it tried, as it cleverly tackles the pressures brought on by the growing obsession with our image. Our online image. The dusty attic with its decaying framed portrait has been replaced with the perfect pixels of selfies, and the Faustian pact for the flawless filter.
Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey it is a co-production between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, The New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd: the team that brought us the equally ground-breaking “What A Carve Up!” last October. It treads a similar path, too, by wandering into the realms of docudrama – but with its finger right on the pulse. The story starts at a fund-raising event to support theatres during the pandemic; organised by Lady Narborough, brilliantly portrayed by Joanna Lumley. It is also Dorian’s twenty-first birthday party: the date is July 4th, 2020, the day when the first lockdown ended. Amongst the guests were four friends and we are tantalisingly informed that “within eight months, three of the four friends were dead”.
Lumley is being interviewed, via zoom, by Stephen Fry who is piecing together the series of events in retrospect. Lumley defensively primes Fry with the proviso that “if people are going to see this, I don’t want any come back”; an echo of Wilde’s contemporaries who began to disassociate themselves from him to avoid the fallout from the novel. What follows are echoes of the novel itself, resounding quite clearly and harmoniously within a wider polemic against the dark side of social media.
Fionn Whitehead is Dorian Gray, who makes a deal for his social star never to fade. For his perfect self that he broadcasts to the world to always remain. We all know the true, horrific cost of this will be unavoidably met, but it is the build-up to this that is as fascinating and exciting as the climax. Viewers who know nothing about the original story will be intrigued. Wilde aficionados will relish the anachronisms and twists. Most of the epigrams are there but they are given new and heightened meaning in Filloux-Bennett’s ingenious script. We also see the characters in a fresh light, and it is here that quite a few liberties are taken. As a result, though, the depth of some of the characters becomes a touch diluted. Many of Lord Henry (Harry) Wotton’s lines are given to Basil Hallward, the creator of the portrait, and vice versa. Whilst this serves to demonise Russell Tovey’s Basil to great effect, it relegates Harry Wotton’s role to more of a hanger-on than being instrumental in Dorian’s corruption. Alfred Enoch, however, gives a thoroughly nuanced performance that swings from devil-may-care bravado to owner of a bruised heart in a brush stroke.
The standout is Emma McDonald’s Sibyl Vane. Not so much a victim of Dorian’s murderous rejection, she instead suffers at the hands of internet trolls. McDonald has the star quality to allow us to believe fully in Sibyl’s star struck, vulnerability. We share her shock at the discovery of the potentially fatal power of social media networks; an unregulated battlefield of harassment and bullying. It is powerful viewing.
This production plants a classic Victorian tale into a modern world of fake news, conspiracy theories and obsession with how others see us. Set in a time of lockdown it is uncomfortably portentous, and it triggers the frightening thought that society might be stuck there. Dorian’s descent into corruption and unravelling mental health remains unwitnessed by the outside world. On screen, through the filter he has sold his soul for, he remains beautiful. But desperately alone.
Whilst never feeling like one, this is a state of the nation, public service broadcast, dressed up as a thought-provoking piece of digital theatre. If Wilde were around today it is exactly the sort of thing he would be exploring.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
The Picture of Dorian Gray
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