Theatre review: Blue/Orange

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IT’S perhaps best to understand Joe Penhall’s acclaimed play Blue/Orange – first seen in London in 2000 – as a two-hour extended metaphor about the state of race and class politics in the UK.

Theatre Royal, Edinburgh

Rating: * * *

Review: Joyce McMillan

The action is set in a psychiatric hospital in west London, where two white doctors are locked in conflict over the fate of a black patient, Chris.

Chris is vulnerable, disturbed, confused, possibly on the brink of serious mental illness. Robert, the senior consultant, is a classic British establishment villain, posh, vain and arrogant, but not above using the mantras of post-Sixties radicalism and “political correctness” to further his career; he is writing a book about the reasons behind the high incidence of diagnosed mental illness among Britain’s black population.

And then there is Bruce, a young trainee doctor from Northern Ireland; in some ways more concerned and egalitarian in his attitude, he nonetheless has a nasty tendency to lose his temper completely when his career seems under threat. The point of the play seems to be that neither doctor is capable of putting the patient’s interests first; instead, their energy is absorbed by their own complex by-play of ambition, prejudice and class, which renders them not only useless to Chris, but also – when the chips are down – actively cruel and damaging.

What we are to make of all this is less than clear; if the play’s intention is metaphorical, it nonetheless keeps being distracted by the specifics of health service management and politics. What can be said, though, is that Christopher Luscombe’s touring production features a beautiful, austere design by Colin Falconer, and is acted with formidable skill by Oliver Wilson, Gerard McCarthy and Robert Bathurst; although in a slick, fast-talking West End style that finally seems more concerned to sneer at the radical or caring pretensions of Britain’s white professional class, than to suggest any possible path to a better future.