Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall is a tight, intense drama about race, madness and the NHS. Originally staged ten years ago with an all male cast, this revival at Arcola by Tiata Fahodzi casts all women and attempts to filter the issues through a uniquely African perspective.
A young black patient, sectioned under the Mental Health Act by police for fruity frottage in Shepherds Bush market, has completed the statutory 28 days in psychiatric care. On the eve of her release, the junior doctor responsible asks for the consultant supervisor to observe a final interview and assess whether release into the care of the community is the right decision. Over three acts, peering through the fishbowl windows of the flourescent lit consulting room dominating the main stage, the careerist motivations of the progressive young medic and the ageing senior consultant are revealed alongside the shifting mental state of patient, Juliet.
The award winning original production saw Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetal Ejiofor create these roles at the National. Helen Schlesinger, Esther Hall and Ayesha Antoine recreate Blue/Orange so faithfully we can only marvel at the enduring power of the scriptwriting and its many flashes of bleak humour. Schlesinger's adoption of Christine Hamilton as a way of channelling Bill Nighy goes down marvellously whilst Hall's strong performance as the idealistic Dr Flaherty, whose professional rug is horribly yanked out from under her feet, prevents us from realising she's the one out of those BT ads until the very end. Antoine's nervy Juliet vexes audience and doctors alike as she veers distressingly from normal behaviour to paranoid, delusional, confrontational and vulnerable at the mercy of the psychiatric unit, its available beds, a "borderline" diagnosis and the research interests of its staff. Her constant refrain of "do you know what I mean?" becomes less a verbal tic than an urgent and unanswered question between patient and an uncaring system.
Interestlingly, the cast gender swap doesn't impact on the play. The only notable difference is the script alteration regarding the specific genitalia involved in the fruit incident. That small detail aside, it's exactly the same play with just as much power and relevance as a decade ago.
Blue/Orange is at Arcola, Dalston E8 2DJ until 20 November. Tickets £16/10 or try your luck with pay what you can Tuesdays.