When Blue/Orange was first staged at the National Theatre in 2000, it caused a sensation. Written by Joe Penhall and performed by a stellar cast comprising Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, this incisive and darkly funny exploration of psychiatry and race won a West End transfer and numerous awards, including an Olivier for best new play.
Recently Penhall has enjoyed further success with his latest play, Birthday, proving a hit at The Royal Court, and now his breakthrough work is getting a well-deserved revival, as Blue/Orange heads out on a national tour, calling in on Richmond Theatre from November 13 to 17.
The play tells the story of a young black patient, Christopher, who has reached the end of a statutory 28-day period in psychiatric care. Ambitious young doctor Bruce Flaherty asks senior consultant Dr Robert Smith to assess his charge and a battle of ideologies and egos ensues as the two doctors argue over whether Christopher, who believes he is the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, should be released.
The play is a tense three hander and as with the original production, an excellent trio of performers has been assembled. Gerard McCarthy, best known for playing cross-dresser Kris Fisher in teen soap Hollyoaks, takes the part of Bruce, while up and coming young actor, Oliver Wilson, plays Christopher.
Robert Bathurst, instantly recognisable due to his starring role in TV hits Downton Abbey and Cold Feet, completes the line-up as Dr Smith and says that although he hadn’t previously seen Penhall’s play, once he read the script he was desperate to join the company.
'I thought the play was provocative, chilling and very funny - an extraordinary combination of the three,' he explains. 'It’s very tightly written and character-driven, it’s just three guys and a bowl of fruit, and while it’s not issue bound it has issues in it, mental health and ethnicity, that we normally bend over backwards to avoid. It deals with those issues full on and unblinkingly.'
According to Bathurst, the louche and arrogant Robert Smith couldn’t be further removed from Sir Anthony Strallen, 'the benign old boy' he plays in Downton Abbey. However, despite the fact that the consultant is not a nice guy, Bathurst believes the strength of Penhall’s writing ensures the audience will find themselves drawn to him.
'Joe’s writing is so good that while my character is quite unsympathetic he talks sense and espouses the cause of liberty. He says Christopher should be released whereas the wishy-washy liberal, who won’t acknowledge that Christopher is black, says he should be banged up,' says Bathurst.
'My character asks why there are more Afro-Caribbean’s with mental problems than any other ethnic group and whether ethnicity should be taken into account. Bruce doesn’t want to see that and the audience won’t quite know who to back. It’s a proper theatrical event and I hope the audience will be sat forward in their seats following the action like a tennis match.'
The issue of race is an undoubtedly a vexing one for the play to explore but Penhall’s play pulls no punches in dealing with this subject and the playwright’s approach is one of the main reasons that Oliver Wilson was drawn to playing the part of Christopher.
'I think it is going to be hard to top this part, especially for me as a young black actor,' he says. 'I try and stay away from stereotypical plays about knife crime and this is the first major modern character I’ve played. Yes, the character is low status and comes from a poor background and the play deals with racism and the ‘N’ word comes up, but I wanted to do it because the dialogue is rich and the play has a purpose and a weight to it.'
The Blue/Orange tour will mark Wilson’s Richmond Theatre debut, but he’ll be alongside two experienced campaigners who have both trodden the boards at the venue before. Bathurst appeared there in a recent revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Gerard McCarthy was part of The Globe’s touring production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. McCarthy says he can’t wait to come back: 'It’s a beautiful venue and, because I’m from Ireland, it’s nice to come out the theatre and see The Green and the trees. You can almost forget that you are in London.'
When the Blue/Orange company do roll into Richmond you would be well advised to get along to the theatre and see what all the fuss was about back in 2000. Rest assured, Penhall’s play is still as relevant and incendiary as it was back then.