Chiwetel Ejiofor in his first major role as a psychiatric patient argued over by two doctors
Schizophrenia is the worst pariah. One of the greatest last taboos. People don’t understand it. They don’t want to understand it. It scares them. It depresses them. It is not treatable with glamorous and intriguing wonderdrugs like Prozac or Viagra. It isn’t newsworthy. It isn’t curable.”
Joe Penhall’s latest play Blue/Orange which has transferred with its original cast, from the National Theatre to the West End, won the Olivier award for Best New Play. Penhall, who served his writing apprenticeship as a local newspaper reporter, has an ear for natural dialogue and his characters are closely observed but it is humour and the measured performances which have made the play a hit.
The play’s three characters are two psychiatrists and Christopher (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a young black patient who claims to be the son of an exiled African dictator. The setting is a National Health psychiatric hospital and the action unfolds over one day. Penhall draws a stark, powerful picture of what psychiatry is available on the “free” National Health Service.
Bill Nighy plays Robert Smith, the sardonic consultant psychiatrist who makes the case that all psychometric testing has a cultural bias, an ethnocentricity which contributes to the misdiagnosis of those from other cultures.
Bruce (Andrew Lincoln) is in his first year of practice and feels that Christopher may have schizophrenia. He wants to keep him as an in-patient. Robert disagrees though we are not sure if he opposes Bruce’s prognosis because too many young black men are diagnosed with schizophrenia or because of the bed shortage in the hospital — or because of a personal conflict with Bruce over his research work. The dialogue draws laughter from the audience but it’s laughter that has an uncomfortable edge since what happens to this young man is not a joking matter.
Bill Nighy gives a mesmerising portrait of Robert, a man in his fifties with a career path intent on taking him to a prestigious professorship. Nighy’s tall, lanky but stooped figure is all blinking ambiguity. Is he a likeable ageing hippie or a Machiavellian careerist? It is no wonder that Penhall actually wrote the part with Bill Nighy in mind. Andrew Lincoln is also strong, depicting the young doctor as a nervous employee outranked and outmanoeuvred.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as the young man caught in the argument between the other two men is full of anxious volatility, and yet manages to often come across as more sane than his doctors. His characterization of the streetwise yet lonely and alienated youth, won him a best newcomer award from both the Critics’ Circle and the Evening Standard.
The Duchess Theatre has reset the seating to resemble that of the original production at the Cottesloe, where it felt like a lecture theatre, with some of the audience in staged seating at the rear of the stage. Most of the seating is closer than normal but from the conventional stalls the stage is raised. William Dudley’s set has a classic minimalism, four chairs, a glass table, a plate of oranges – well they looked orange to me! Roger Michell, director of the movie Notting Hill, has ensured rotating the cast so that we do not have the back view of any actor for long.
It is a real pleasure to see new plays transferring to the West End. While some of Joe Penhall’s other plays made it to the Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse, Blue/Orange is the first one into the West End “proper”. His fluid and perceptive writing shows great promise and it’s not without reason that he has already been compared to Pinter.
Written by Joe Penhall
Directed by Roger Michell
Director: Roger Michell
Designer: William Dudley
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Sound Designer: Neil Alexander
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Previously played at the Cottesloe Theatre from April to August 2000
Closed at the Duchess on 15th December 2001
London WC2B 5LA
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Duchess on 27th April 2001