Joe Penhall’s ‘Blue/Orange’ is the defining play of the New Labour era, a dark satire on the bureaucratisation of culture and abuse of political correctness, which follows junior psychiatrist Bruce and senior psychiatrist Robert – both white – as they battle over the fate of black patient Christopher. A probable paranoid schizophrenic, Christopher seems unprepared for release into the community. Bruce wants him to stay sectioned. But Robert wants to get him out and is so determined to do so that he suggests Bruce is motivated by prejudice.
In 2016 the play is in danger of seeming dated: pretending to be right-on is now pretty much the default setting of our political class. It’s easy to forget that in 1999 – when ‘Blue/Orange’ premiered – thisw had not long been the case.
But director Matthew Xia has made the canny decision to amplify and exaggerate his revival way beyond straightforward naturalism. It feels less era-specific, fizzing with the berserk energy of a Joe Orton farce. And it hasn’t lose its bite.
Key to it all is the casting of the veteran comedy actor David Haig in the role of Robert. A screen and stage stalwart, this is the first time the reliably OTT actor has done a show off-West End in yonks. If it’s at first disorientating seeing his old-school, perspiration-heavy style of performance in the hipster Young Vic, I soon adjusted. A booming, sneering, cajoling shit, he makes no effort to play Robert with a straight face. Which is really funny. But also it feels political. Where the character originally felt like a manifestation of New Labour’s propensity for ethical doublethink, now he feels like an embodiment of Cameron’s Conservatives – paying lip service to compassion for the vulnerable while brazenly doing the opposite. After Bruce demonstrates the depths of Christopher’s illness beyond doubt – he believes a bowl of oranges are blue – Robert vigorously ties himself into knots explaining why sending Christopher out into the community would probably turn out just fine, and certainly be financially for the best.
If Haig was out on a limb in the big acting stakes it might feel a bit of a mess. But his two co-stars rise to his energy levels admirably. Notionally the straight man, Luke Norris’s Bruce becomes magnificently frazzled as his earnest attempts to help Christopher backfire in the face of Robert’s machinations. And Daniel Kaluuya is superb as Christopher. Bright and flamboyant, you feel the character cresting the wave of his unstable emotions – manic bordering on euphoric in the early scenes, but swerving into despair with hairpin precision. It is an edgy and unnerving portrait of a man unambiguously mentally ill.
If the play does show its age it’s that it’s a bit talky – a two-and-a-half-hour three-hander doesn’t feel very 2016. But all credit to Xia and cast for making this sardonic comment on another time and place feel horribly and exuberantly timeless.