If any art form can poke people into exploring sensitive and difficult topics, it's theatre. 'Blue/Orange', the curiously titled revival currently playing at The Rep in Birmingham, does just that. Powerfully. Entertainingly. It feels like an important play, as current as when it premiered in 2000 at the National Theatre.
Director Daniel Bailey takes on this taut three-hander, set in a London psychiatric hospital, with deceptively simple storytelling. The complexities simmer under the surface without compromising what is, at heart, a deeply human and painfully sad story of one young man's battle with mental illness.
Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is a young black man, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), who is on the cusp of release from hospital. He's excited to go home. Or is he? And where is home? And does he really have BPD? Or is he schizophrenic? What is the cause of his psychosis? This play, with its quickfire dialogue, shoots questions at the audience constantly, never answering them but drawing us deeper into a world of blurred ethical lines and slippery arguments.
On either side of Christopher - literally for much of the play - are two doctors. The young, idealistic Bruce (Thomas Coombes) wants to keep his patient in for further treatment, believing he is not well enough to return to the community. Bruce's mentor - and here the power politics sidle in - is Robert (Richard Lintern), an older consultant who wants to send Christopher home. But Christopher is Bruce's patient. Battle commences to explosive effect as the fate of one patient hangs in the balance: a deeply disturbing microcosm of real-life situations playing out in psychiatric hospitals up and down the country as life-changing decisions are made by medical professionals.
As discussions about Christopher's possible re-sectioning under the Mental Health Act develop, we are drawn deeper into a complex web of contradictions. Everything becomes somehow less certain. Boundaries blur. Diagnoses warp. Motives morph. What drives the decisions made by the doctors? Who benefits?
Making his professional debut as Christopher, Ivan Oyik perfectly captures the conflicted nature of a mental patient in a humorous and affecting performance. He veers unnervingly from confident joking to aggressive posturing. We're never quite sure just how ill he is. Whether the 'right decision' is for him to be discharged or not. The ambiguity in Joe Penhall's writing teases out the uncertainties surrounding mental illness in a provocative and entertaining way as we are encouraged to explore the thin line between sanity and insanity.
Bruce's patient-centred approach seems genuine as we get to know the characters at the start of the play. We're on his side: he cares. His argument that Christopher is not well enough to leave hospital seems right. Reasonable. Thomas Coombes conveys the earnestness of the young doctor doing right by his patient with convincing passion. No spoilers, but suffice to say his idealism fractures and this is where Coombes shines: heated discussions and outbursts creating moments of palpable shock in the theatre.
Completing the trio, Richard Lintern plays the older mentor and consultant Robert with unsettling charm and arrogant detachment. But he's no two-dimensional 'baddie' despite seeming to prioritise his own private career agenda over patient care. His arrogance ("sick people come to me...they are suffering...they go away and they no longer suffer. Because of me. All because of me") is offset by a niggling doubt that he may be right.
The play's reflections on language and misinterpretation ring true, as do the concerns about racism in the mental health system. It neatly strikes that difficult balance between raising important questions and entertaining an audience, containing far more moments of laughter than you might expect.
There has been a promising increase in new plays tackling the thorny topic of mental illness since 'Blue/Orange' was revived at the Young Vic in 2016. This excellent restaging continues that conversation in confident style. As director Daniel Bailey notes, it's a play which presents questions but doesn't provide answers. It's a thought-provoking and important piece of theatre. Catch it if you can.
'Blue/Orange' is playing at the Birmingham Rep until 16th February 2019
Box Office: 0121 236 4455