Joe Penhall
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal Studio

Michael Beckley, Lekan Lawal and Jonathan Race in Blue/Orange Credit: York Theatre Royal

Joe Penhall's much fêted 2000 play is in many ways a similar beast to David Mamet's Oleanna or even David Harrower's Blackbird, both of which have received impressive recent stagings in the Theatre Royal's Studio space.

Juliet Forster, who was also the director of the aforementioned production of Oleanna, has shown herself to be interested in—and a masterly interpreter of—these microcosmic, well-wrought, fraught, wordy dramas. Penhall's writing dissects in minute detail the strategies and powers involved in a situation where words are all one has to bargain with, and Forster and her actors have clearly picked apart the script with precision.

The play deals with many issues—the pressures on the NHS, the risks of clinical misdiagnosis, the role of the old boys' network in advancing one's career—but looming large throughout all this is the question of cultural oppression. Not only (though not least) the oppression of the young black male, Christopher (Lekan Lawal) at the centre of the psychiatric case study at the heart of the play, but also that imposed by the academic world. Both young trainee psychiatrist Bruce Flaherty (Jonathan Race) and 50-something Doctor Robert Smith (Michael Beckley) use jargon-filled verbal flows to exert their superior knowledge over the patient, to win arguments—and simply because that is how one is expected to speak in the environment depicted.

As in Blackbird, the audience's sympathies and understanding of the situation at times shift almost line by line. But, as in Oleanna, the individual in the apparently socially inferior position is revealed to hold power too. Here, the authority bearing down on the ambitious young academic is represented onstage, though nameless offstage committees and other pressures are invoked.

This is a fascinating play, given a slick and intelligent new production. The complex speech and thought patterns conveyed in the dialogue—another debt to Mamet, perhaps—are dealt with at a rapid lick, but with a smoothness and ease which bears testament to the skill with which the actors have taken on their roles.

If there is a small niggle, it is that Michael Beckley as the older doctor is slightly too emphatically twitchy, with a touch too much of Orton's manic Doctor Rance about him, which occasionally weights the audience's sympathies too firmly with the younger practitioner. A more rounded character would preserve the finely-balanced ambiguities of the text slightly better.

The problem with casting Jonathan Race, if there is one, is that he's simply so dashed likeable, which had at least this reviewer rooting for his character from the outset. Again, he doesn't put a foot wrong, and carries the role with intelligence and poise. The later shifts in the character are shocking while being genuinely felt and plausibly portrayed.

Lekan Lawal is also magnetic from the outset, shifting rather than swinging wildly, from youthful excitability to wide-eyed, scratching paranoia and deep despair with credibility.

The set, designed by Barney George, is functional but slightly underwhelming, with the slightly fussy and unnecessary-seeming addition of an illuminated screen at the far corner of the stage. But Juliet Forster has a talent for manoeuvring her actors around the Studio space with an easy grace which creates variation and visual interest at every turn while feeling entirely unforced.

Similarly, the wordy pieces she tackles, while well-written, are also well-read, in that the weight of text delivered often at quite speedy paces does not obscure the meanings and manipulations at stake. And despite the weighty topics at its heart, the play invites—and here receives—a blackly comic treatment. This is a skilfully mounted production of an excellent modern play, and both play and production deserve plaudits.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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