Blue/Orange

Ensemble Theatre, October 29

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Written by British playwright Joe Penhall (who grew up in Australia), Blue/Orange is a fierce comedy bursting with conflicting ideas about mental illness, its diagnosis and its treatment. Premiered by London’s National Theatre in 2000, it is given three exemplary performances in this impressive Ensemble Theatre production.

Christopher (Dorian Nkono), a young black Londoner, is 24 hours away from being released from a psychiatric hospital. The police sectioned him after an “incident” at a market but legally he can only be held for 28 days and he can’t wait to get out. In fact, he is climbing the walls – even without the coffee and coke he craves.

Christopher has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder but Bruce (Ian Meadows), a young trainee psychiatrist who has been treating him, suspects that he is actually a paranoid schizophrenic and wants to keep him at the hospital to do more tests.

He asks his mentor Robert (Sean Taylor), a senior doctor, to sit in on one of their sessions. But instead of supporting Bruce, Robert is dismissive. He is writing a book about “black psychosis” in which he argues that ethnic and cultural factors play more of a role in mental illness that is recognised and argues that growing up black and poor in Britain could go a long way to explaining Christopher’s problem. Besides, he needs the bed for other patients.

Soon the two doctors are at loggerheads. Robert insists Christopher be allowed to go home – even though it becomes clear that he has no home or family to go to. Bruce fights tooth and nail to change Robert’s mind, fearful that Christopher is a danger to himself and others.

As for Christopher, he thinks his father is Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and that the oranges in the room are blue.

Blue/Orange is passionately written. The arguments swing back and forth and Penhall keeps us wondering about the true state of Christopher’s mental health. At times though it feels overwritten, with dialogue turning into big, weighty speeches that feel imposed on the drama.

A couple of the twists don’t ring totally true and it’s hard to believe that the two doctors would argue so vehemently about Christopher in front of him, as they do at times. Robert also feels a tad too overtly Machiavellian. But then the play is also very much about power and ego, with the two doctors shown to be more interested in their own careers than Christopher.

Running two hours and twenty minutes (including interval) Blue/Orange would be sharpened by an edit. But the writing is so robust, and laced with so much humour, that it keeps you thoroughly engaged – especially when performed as well as it is here.

Anna Crawford directs a brisk, well-paced production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that contrasts a bland room with a large sculptural backdrop at the heart of which is a round void (somewhat reminiscent of an Anish Kapoor void) onto which coloured light is projected (a visual metaphor for Christopher’s confused perceptions).

Taylor is perfectly cast as Robert, capturing his patrician, easy swagger and enunciating each word with crisp precision in his seductively rumbling voice. But his charm becomes almost sinister as he is revealed to be patronising, bitter and manipulative.

Meadows is equally persuasive as the decent, passionate but inexperienced Bruce who speaks his mind with injudicious frankness, and Nkono is wonderful as Christopher, hyper-active one minute, forlorn and touchingly vulnerable the next. Remaining somewhat enigmatic throughout, Nkono’s Christopher certainly defies easy diagnosis, showing how hard it can be to recognise and treat mental illness – particularly when there are other agendas at play.

It’s a fascinating play that would probably be even stronger with an edit but nonetheless it still packs a considerable punch.

Blue/Orange is at the Ensemble Theatre until November 29. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644

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Clybourne Park

Ensemble Theatre, March 19

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

There was such interest in Clybourne Park that the Ensemble Theatre production sold out before opening so two performances in Chatswood have been added.

Written by American actor-playwright Bruce Norris, the play arrives in Sydney trailing numerous awards including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Expectations were therefore high – and the Ensemble production more than meets them.

The pithy drama straddles 50 years in a Chicago suburb. It begins in 1959. A clearly unhappy couple – the angry, taciturn Russ (Richard Sydenham) and his over-cheery wife Bev (Wendy Strehlow) – is packing up their home with the help of their black maid Francine (Paula Arundell).

Their local preacher (Thomas Campbell) arrives, clearly hoping to have a meaningful conversation with Russ, followed not long after by a neighbour called Karl (Nathan Lovejoy) with his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Briallen Clarke).

Politely outraged that they have sold the property to a “coloured” family at a knock-down price (for reasons revealed later), Karl tries to convince them to change their mind, his appalling bigotry expressed in the nicest way possible.

When Francine’s husband Albert (Cleave Williams) arrives to pick her up, his attempt to help Russ becomes excruciatingly awkward.

The second act is set in 2009. A white couple (Lovejoy and Clarke) has bought the run-down house in the now predominantly Afro-American suburb and wants to rebuild. This time, there are objections from a young, black woman (Arundell) who wants the history of the area to be respected.

Clybourne Park is a provocative play with some truly cringe-making moments, including several rancid jokes. But it is also very funny and sad as it tackles racism, political correctness and real estate, while weaving in grief and post-traumatic stress disorder too.

You’re aware that the play’s neat structure – which has the cast playing two different sets of characters across the two time-frames, some of them related – is well-crafted if not contrived in its balanced halves and set-piece debates. However, it’s so cleverly done and the writing so good that it works.

Tanya Goldberg directs a terrific production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that manages to make the stage look much bigger than usual (a feat that Lauren Peters has pulled off with equal flair for The Drowsy Chaperone currently playing at the tiny Hayes Theatre Co). The way the house is transformed into a graffiti-covered state of disrepair during the interval is very cleverly done.

Goldberg has elicited uniformly strong, utterly truthful performances from her excellent cast who work together as a well-oiled ensemble.

Clybourne Park could easily be set in Sydney, where right now there are plans for public housing in prime, inner-city locations to be sold off by the NSW State Government, despite the long-standing history of the area.

It’s a thought-provoking play that has you squirming at times and underlines with discomforting power that attitudes haven’t changed anywhere near as much as we’d like to think.

Clybourne Park runs at the Ensemble Theatre until April 19 and then at The Concourse Chatswood on April 23 & 24. Bookings: 9929 0644