Joe Penhall
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Production photo

The Octagon's latest production is of Joe Penhall's Blue / Orange, which won the best new play award at the Olivier Awards for its first production at the National Theatre in 2000.

Set in a psychiatric ward of a teaching hospital, it focuses on the treatment of a young, black patient called Christopher who has been sectioned temporarily by police after committing unnamed acts with fruit on the market stall where he works. When he is due for release, young psychiatrist Bruce believes he should be kept for longer to be properly checked out for schizophrenia, but his supervisor and mentor, consultant Robert, disagrees because he doesn't believe it is worth giving him a scarce hospital bed or that it is in Christopher's best interests to keep him in. Bruce's demonstration that Christopher believes himself to be the son of Idi Amin and also that the oranges in the fruit bowl are blue fail to change Robert's mind, and Bruce's persistence and his questions about Robert's motives get him in serious trouble with 'the authority'.

The play's attempt to turn the attention to the sanity of the doctors in a psychiatric ward echoes Joe Orton's What The Butler Saw but without the descent into total anarchy of the earlier play. There also seems to be a strong influence of David Mamet, firstly in the broken up speech - which isn't always spoken successfully but may improve as the production settles in - and secondly in the way one character does something that he believes is natural and of benefit to the other but which is interpreted as abusive, just like in Mamet's Oleanna. The constant fear of 'the authority' is somewhere between Kafka and The Prisoner.

The play is very funny at times, and at others confronts some difficult issues about race, mental illness and care in the community, putting both sides of the arguments fully without necessarily judging which is right. Sometimes the arguments seem to be going around in circles for a little too long.

There are some good performances in the play. Stuart Fox as Robert seems to be doing an impression of Bill Nighy (who played the part at the National), but it is actually very effective; sometimes he is very funny and at other times quite sinister and abusive of his authority. Justin Brett is always frustrated by everything as he tries to follow his conscience as psychiatrist Bruce, and Daniel Poyser brings out the humour, poignancy and intelligence of the patient Christopher.

Hannah Clark's set is simple but effective, with just two doorways, a couple of chairs and a table for the fruit bowl on a circular raised stage with a blue surround, a bit like a cake stand. For reasons that I could not work out, the stage occasionally revolves between scenes. Jason Osterman's lighting is also mostly kept simple, but occasionally the whole stage gets darker or lighter, which is a little distracting.

This play does get a little long and repetitive at times, but overall this is a well-performed, entertaining, funny and thought-provoking production.

"Blue / Orange" runs until 27 May 2006

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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