Review: Blue/Orange (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, September 22)

Underlying causes of psychiatric problems, medical ethics, the stress of urban environments, questions about healthcare and even wider issues about life in the 21st Century are unpeeled and chewed over in Joe Penhall’s fascinating Blue/Orange, which has launched at Brighton’s Theatre Royal as the second offering in the inaugural season of Theatre Royal Brighton Productions.

The award-winning piece was first staged in London 12 years ago, but director Christopher Luscombe’s superb revival loses none of its hard-hitting satire and edgy humour and proves that the crucial issues at its heart are every bit as relevant today.

Christopher is a young black man suffering from borderline personality disorder. Bruce, the over-confident junior doctor on his case, has reservations about his being released back into the community after being sectioned, not least when the patient thinks all oranges are actually blue, and that he is the son of an infamous Ugandan dictator. Robert, the senior consultant, believes it is safe to release the patient - but then again, he has his own agenda, preoccupied as he is with his career and a questionable research project.

Little can be done about the play’s uneven quality - the second half is faster-paced and considerably more intriguing than the first - but the audience is always left desperate to know what effect the twists and turns of the game being played are going to have as the intellectual catfight mounts and the patient at the heart of it all is almost forgotten.

It is almost entirely down to an extraordinary and accomplished cast, each getting to grips brilliantly with their contrasting characters, that the play seizes the attention and keeps it, especially during what might be boring exchanges about controversial psychiatrist R.D.Laing or the precise meaning of paranoia and personality disorder.

As senior consultant Robert, Robert Bathurst brings an air of detachment covering over a sense of self-importance and a horrifying disregard for the needs of the patient in question. His interests are purely personal and political and we see clearly the vanity and all too easy dismissal of his younger colleague, whose views carry such weight.

The tricky role of the patient, Christopher, is handled admirably by Oliver Wilson, giving an enthralling edgy performance. It’s a complex character but not one facet is lost, with Wilson ensuring the patient gets sympathy, is always plausible, but also sometimes manipulative as he seeks release from a London psychiatric hospital and hopes to settle into a Care in the Community scheme.

Gerard McCarthy is a joyous revelation in the role of the young and inexperienced trainee psychiatrist Bruce, struggling to balance what he sees as best for the patient with a fight to save his career. His verbal sparring with his mentor is enthralling. He is definitely a name to watch out for in future and producers should already be hammering at the stage door to secure his services in whatever acting medium he may choose.

Black and white? Blue and orange? The answers are certainly not clear by the end of this play, a worthy addition to what looks like being a pleasing and exciting output from this new production company.

David Guest