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FringeReview UK 2016


Young Vic

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Young Vic


Low Down

Joe Penhall’s 2000 Blue/Orange is revived at the Young Vic directed by Matthew Xia with David Haig, Luke Norris and Daniel Kaluuya. Minimal design by Jeremy Herbert is enhanced by peeled oranges strewing various grim passages to the seats.


This revival of Joe Penhall’s 2000 Blue/Orange directed by Matthew Xia with David Haig Luke Norris and Daniel Kaluuya receives a thrilling production at the Young Vic. Minimal design by Jeremy Herbert – chairs, table, water filter, oranges – is enhanced by peeled oranges strewing various grim passages to the seats, as if you could nose your way there.


I thought I knew this play. This might be the finest production since the premiere, certainly eclipsing one I saw, changing my response to Penhall’s best-known work, though he’s now also famed for screenplays and Sunny Afternoon.


Christopher, a young black man, is being assessed by registrar psychiatrist Bruce – a man symbolically exactly his age – for release. Bruce, who’s on probation, admitted him twenty-eight days back and thinks he’s not simply Borderline Personality Disorder; that is, the no-man’s land of hurting others – psychotic – or yourself – neurotic. Bruce thinks Christopher’s nearing that misunderstood world labelled schizo-affective. It means Christopher will be dosed up, stumbling through revolving doors the rest of his life. Bruce, earnest and awkward, is desperately anxious to do right; he’s also judgementally bigoted.


Enter urbane quote-reaching consultant Robert, strutted with hauteur, menacing playfulness, and cunning by David Haig. Robert, Bruce’s supervisor, wants Christopher out, to free up a bed, but more importantly, to fulfil an ambition. Robert’s stepping after R D Laing (‘I was quoting Laing’ he ripostes) and sees Christopher as a means of completing his book, so he too can assume a professorship and mantle of greatness.


Alluding to French surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s blue orange, Robert disingenuously suggests Christopher’s persistence in seeing oranges as blue might be a cultural memory. It isn’t. Haig dissimulates culture like after-dinner mints as Christopher’s birthright whilst believing no such thing. Daniel Kaluuya’s Christopher, with the unerring plausibility of some schizo-affectives, brilliantly rationalises how he’s the son of Idi Amin, his Zaire mother resident in Uganda. Later he clinches Mohammad Ali as father via The Rumble in the Jungle. Kaluuya’s charm doesn’t disguise fault-lines that snap open: snatching a press-cutting back from Haig’s Dr Robert who’s about to pocket it says everything about cultural appropriation.


Bruce realizes this and in his blundering places tripwires for himself. In a closed interview with Christopher, Robert scrambles self-derogatory demotics that Christopher’s adopted – innocently reminded by Bruce. Bruce’s reminder is a gift to Robert.


Christopher’s a site of ego-conflict, high-mindedness, wrong diagnosis. When Robert gets him alone he bullies him out of a desire to stay, planting the idea that Bruce is racist. In reality, Robert’s ethnocentric projection of why so many black men come through the system is deeply racist. He cajoles Christopher, an African, to listen to Caribbean reggae.


In this thrilling production, it’s almost that all three protagonists start sane and all end mad.


Kaluuya’s Christopher is edged with danger. In a breathtaking display, his jocularity flips to panicky near violence followed by numb withdrawal. Terrified implosion reeks off Kaluuya, twisted by Robert and cajoled, eventually abused by Bruce. Both by pleading with him for their lives are beginning to destroy his.


Luke Norris isn’t without a steely vein of self-righteous resilience, even when he fawns: a hapless pupil, cravenly ambitious yet in petulant revolt – you wonder if his high-minded stance has been that all along. Not quite, but no-one’s identity is stable; which is psychiatry’s point. Haig’s breezy ruthlessness knows no bounds, but not everything’s stacked on his side. No-one takes prisoners, but Christopher’s already a hostage in this absorbing, still utterly relevant dramatization of the abuse we offer the abused.