3 out of 5 stars
L-R Gerard McCarthy, Robert Bathurst, Oliver Wilson in Blue-Orange, photo Robert Workman.jpg
© Robert Workman Gerard McCarthy, Robert Bathurst

Joe Penhall's Olivier-winning social satire may have given the National Theatre a massive West End hit upon its 2000 premiere, but it's still a bold choice of show for Theatre Royal Brighton to take out on tour in 2012.

Though 'Blue/Orange' is set within the British mental health system, its wider target is the social experimentation and instituational mindset of New Labour, as embodied by affably Machiavellian consultant psychiatrist Robert (Robert Bathurst). He is an urbane monster, calmly willing to distort the truth in order to desperately unstable black patient Christopher (Oliver Wilson) out into society, swift to invoke political correctness to excoriate Bruce (Gerald McCarthy), Christopher's young, well-meaning white doctor. He is an immaculately observed avatar of the Blair era's Orwellian peak, but he feels a little adrift from the inept machination of our current government.

Perhaps aware of both of this and the need to craft an accessible production for the regional touring circuit (a West End berth is projected), director Christopher Luscombe has fashioned a polished, funny production that retains its heart of darkness while maintaining an inviting front.

Stage and screen veteran Bathurst has an effortless comic touch, gliding across the stage like the reincarnation of 'Yes, Minister's smooth Whitehall mandarin Humphrey Appleby as he disabuses Bruce of any notion that the objective well being of individual patients is a priority.

But while Bathurst is funny, his touch is too light – though we find out he is manipulating Christopher for the sake of a study he is writing, there is little sense that he is scheming other than for the sake of it. He is intensely watchable, but too simple as a villain.

The other two actors do good work. If he doesn't quite pick out Bruce's sense of ambition, McCarthy makes his disillusionment believable and heartbreaking; and Wilson impresses as a man whose easy demeanour complicates our perception of his sanity. An entertaining evening, but the play has aged and the production slips down a little too easily.