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Theatre Review: Blue/Orange @ Birmingham Rep

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Blue/Orange was written in 2000 by Joe Penhall, with its original blurb describing it as "an incendiary tale of race, madness and a Darwinian power struggle at the heart of a dying National Health Service". This remains true in the Birmingham Rep's production, though it loses steam in the second half after a dynamic opening.

Image courtesy of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

We begin in media res, in a nevertheless exposition-heavy scene. We are informed of the status quo through Bruce (Thomas Coombes) questioning Christopher (Ivan Oyik) as to why he thinks he's been sectioned, a tool that is initially humourous but becomes far more sinister as the play goes on. The plot doesn't deviate too far from this opener - many more discussions occur, between two or all three of the actors, revolving around Christopher's care and their methods. 

The twist in this tale comes when Christopher is coerced into placing a complaint against Bruce by his boss Robert (Richard Lintern) - the scene in which this coersion occurs is one of the best of the piece. Naturalistic dialogue is displaced by flashing lights and Oyik pulling tortured facial expressions, which I would've liked to have seen more of throughout, as it helped to create a tense atmosphere in a play which elsewhere relied solely upon the interplay between characters for the same effect.

All three of the players were captivating: Coombes and Lintern perfectly depict the warring motives of the two healthcare specialists, and Ivan Oyik wows with his control and exuberance. He could switch tones in a split second, from easygoing and humourous to alarmed and violent within the timespan of a twitch. I strongly believe that without Oyik's contribution this performance would have fallen flat, regardless of the talent of the other actors.

Looking back at the play's origins, it seems easy to compare this production to its first run in 2000. Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetel Ejiofor originated the roles, and the trajectory between Nighy's stuffy older man shtick and Lintern's performance is visible. But really, a comparison between the two is bittersweet - it was written at a time when mental health services were severely lacking, and the NHS was "dying", and not much has changed. The Birmingham Rep's production felt contemporary, and I was saddened by the fact that it's almost 20 year old. 

So far, my review would indicate a strong recommendation, as it's a timely piece with strong acting (at the very least from its main character). However, the play's much shorter second half left something to be desired, as all of the questions that were raised in the first half were left unanswered. Does Christopher have Borderline Personality Disorder, or is he Schizophrenic? Is Robert going to use him as a test subject? Will Bruce successfully file a complaint for his wrongful treatment? 

A feeling of unsatisfaction can seem apt in some cases - it can make you consider the real-life situation that a work is based on, or question your own response to the piece. But here it just felt unfinished.

Blue/Orange is running at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until February 16th, and tickets can be purchased here.




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