Describing Blue/Orange as a thought-provoking play about mental health feels a bit of an undersell. Mental health has a strange place in the arts. On one hand, it fascinates and horrifies – providing compelling spectacle and a wealth of storytelling devices, from origin stories to tragic endings. On the other, it is heavily romanticised - the stereotype of the ‘tormented genius artist’ is alive and well in the Insta age, providing compelling confessionals, moody marketing material and helpfully hashtagged aesthetics. Blue/Orange refuses to offer up these familiar routes – instead, it demands the audience wrestle with the complexity of diagnosing and treating mental health challenges in the
Originally premiered in 2000, Blue/Orange follows the journey of Christopher, a young Black man who is coming to the end of his ‘Section 2’ detainment in hospital. His young, white doctor, Bruce, is expected to confirm that Christopher can be released – there’s pressure on beds and Christopher has a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. But Bruce believes Christopher needs to be kept in hospital for longer, as he sees signs of Schizophrenia, and is concerned that Christopher will not have the right support to do well in the outside world without that diagnosis. For this, he needs the agreement of his supervisor, Dr Smith – Senior Consultant. However, Dr Smith is concerned that a prolonged stay will not help Christopher’s mental state, and that some of his ‘delusions’ are plausible – just not in the eyes of someone whose cultural reference points are White British. This is Dr Smith’s area of research, and he has an eye on progressing to professorship – plus he is under pressure to keep spending down, free up beds and keep management happy. For Dr Smith, releasing Christopher is the best option on all counts.
The play offers up a masterclass in portraying complex human dynamics, as the relationships between the three men shift via many, many tiny moments of friction. Michael Balogun’s Christopher is the most believable, human portrayal of a mental health inpatient I had ever seen: warm, funny, chatty - but tripped up by his own disordered thinking, and doubly vulnerable as a result of his condition and the precarious position he finds himself in. Ralph Davis’ Bruce weaves either side of that fine line between being passionate about care, and too emotionally invested in his patients. Giles Terera plays Dr Smith with absolute conviction: there’s a real sense of lived experience and complexity. His Dr Smith knows how the system works – and every decision he makes is shaped by this. All three performances are enhanced by the minimal stage set and exacting role of dialogue: as the story unfolds, words come back to bite, words are distorted, words have consequences. You feel you are being reminded of what acting – pure, unembellished, precise acting – can really do.
Blue/Orange is not always a comfortable play – although it is peppered with sharp humour - and I think that’s its strength. It is a play engineered to get important conversations going – on my way out I overheard fellow audience members’ post-show chat: it was full of disagreements and questions, and I took that as a sign that the play had done its job. It's a juicy and substantial bit of theatre, and feels perfectly ripe for our time.