Friday, November 23, 2007

What colours do you see?

Do you see in colour? If so, what colours do you see? Are you normal; am I normal? What is normal? Questions, questions, questions - all unravelling before me. Why? A visit to Blue/Orange, a play of psychiatric potency, as envisioned by the amateurs, and I use the term purely in its literal sense, of the Progress Theatre.

A three hander is a tall order for a small team to pull off, and this is a play of words, lots of them. So, there is a mountain to climb in terms of mastering those roles and to concoct a believable world of a small psychiatric unit. The production launches into action through a babel of disembodied voices and dystopian imagery fused into a Tate Modern-like installation piece. The work of Mike Brand, a Reading artist, is on display here both in these echoes of what the disturbed young man at the centre of the work may be hearing and feeling, and in the pleasingly antiseptic set which acts as a foil to the machinations of the plot.

A young doctor and a younger patient, the man around which the plot revolves, enter the stage. They are in discussion. The doctor is concerned. He wants to do the right thing. He wants the best for his patient. He has an approach, a way of doing things. He thinks he needs more time: more time to help this man. There is a downside. The man has had an 'episode', has been detained and is nearing the end of his stay: the time when he can go home, but only if the doctor, the psychiatrist, says so. Power: raw power, one with all and one with none.

Emmanuel Adanlawo is highly accomplished in his display of the emotional range of the highly-strung detainee in this opening encounter and Mark Simmonds plays the college fresh shrink with an authentic nod to the lack of experience that his character feels in the midst of this tense stand-off.

Chris Bertrand as Bruce enters, smoking, and blusters his way into conversation with the doctor, with scant regard for the all-important doctor-patient relationship. He is the self-important consultant, the more experienced teacher. Power: raw power, one with none, one with some and one with more. How will they use this power? More questions.

The consultant role is the keystone of the play. He acts as the disturbing influence in the path mapped out by his pupil in the treatment of the disturbed. He has been supremely cast, with the right air of snootiness, condescension, and I'm the greatest thing to hit this place smugness.

The struggle for power begins now and ebbs and flows between the characters. The writing from the truth-seeking imagination of Joe Penhall is superb. There is a message: is there a sort of institutional racism in the treatment of people with mental health problems? Do the white middle-class professionals of this branch of medicine judge people by their own standards and find them wanting? The message is expertly conveyed though the dramatic tension of the claustrophobic consulting room.

This is a play of power: raw power. A psychiatrist holds power over his patient's liberty. He must exercise that wisely and the widely different approaches of the pupil and teacher examine the intellectual hoops through which they must leap to apply the correct label, the correct diagnosis and its attendant treatment regime: inside or outside the institution? The patient is not without power too, as we see when the plot unfolds towards its tantalising conclusion.

I loved the way that the roles reversed throughout this story. "Pull yourself together" is a phrase that would never grace the lips of a self respecting psychiatrist when dealing with his patient, but when the superior being of the consultant is being heavy handed and superior with his patient-like underling then it's OK.

Get a ticket for this play if you can. The denizens of the Progress Theatre have proved that being amateur doesn't have to be a straight-jacket. After all in the treatment of mental health, that's so last century. They climbed the mountain, they made it real, or was I just hearing voices?

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