The first thing I experienced when I walked into the mini-atrium which served as the setting for Blue/Orange at the Young Vic was a feeling of familiarity. The atrium had all the hallmarks of an NHS building – a replica of a hospital consulting room, specifically a mental health ward.
The air was thick with the scent of bleach and oranges and at first all I could do was grin. The sensory experience was such a clever way to immerse the audience into the world of the protagonist. Oranges are symbolic throughout the play and even during the performance the scent of orange wafted from the stage.
The remake of the actual consulting room was exactly like Mausley Hospital, a place I have been to myself. I don’t have fond memories of it, but it was an accurate recreation, from the wildflower-blue chairs to the laminate-wood tables. As someone who has been through the mental health system, I could not help feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, pleasant or otherwise.
The play itself launches you straight into the world of Chris, our main character, who is a man so endearing that even when he says the most outrageous things they still come across as innocent. He is played by Daniel Kaluuya (Skins, Johnny English Reborn, Sicario), and is a man facing the decision as to whether he should stay in hospital for treatment of suspected schizophrenia or leave to return home to his flat on a Shepherd’s Bush estate, after completing a 28 day confinement.
The gravity of the situation and diagnosis seem to call out for a depressing exploration of tragic topics, but instead the play is counterbalanced with humour. The use of black comedy throughout makes the story seem all the more real, as it correlates with the juxtaposition life often brings. There were so many moments where I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Sometimes I was on the verge of both.
The audience fortunately gets to peer into Chris’ inner world as Kaluuya does a brilliant job of being in character, even whilst out of the main action on stage. His waiting room while the doctors argue is in a lowered space between the audience and the stage. He paces, sits, plays with cigarettes. His insecurities and frustrations at being penned in are shown as constantly running through his mind; heightened by the minimal sound-scape. The most prominent noise is that of a ticking clock. That irritating tick, tick, tick of those round white clocks that are ubiquitous in every institution.
Although Chris’ frustration is cushioned with humour, there are times where things do get serious and they become all the more stark in comparison. “Black psychosis” is what appears to be a derogatory term for Dr Smith’s (played by David Haig) theory, that the majority of black mental health patients are there because people are quick to institutionalise ethnic minorities due to a lack of understanding. He links this concept to what he feels black men must experience in society: paranoia bred by women holding their bags that bit tighter when passing a black man or having people look through you on the street. But then this same character also thinks that all black people listen to reggae and that it is okay to call someone of African decent, “Afro-Caribbean”.
Despite being 15-years-old, Blue/Orange is just as potent and relevant now as it was then. It highlights the deeply concerning fact that after all this time, the issues regarding black mental health are as dire today they were then. Even now, no-one seems to know why black men in Britain are 17 times more likely than white counterparts to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness, and in a political climate in which there is minimal spending on mental health and a growing socio-economic divide between the rich and poor, it is a play designed to make you think about an issue that has been out of the media for a while.
Leaving the theatre I felt like I had been on an emotional journey. All sides of the argument as to whether Chris should stay or go are riddled with flaws, but also seeds of truth. I believe no-one is meant to leave the theatre having an exact opinion on the outcome of Chris’ life. Blue/ Orange is a phenomenal play that does what contemporary theatre generally aims to achieve: creating a discussion and enthralling the audience with a genuine human story. I cannot emphasise enough how much I recommend it.
Running until July 2 at the Young Vic