Blue/Orange written by Joe Penhall (Photo by Nick Allsop)

Blue/Orange (Sherman) | Theatre

Written by Joe Penhall 15 years ago, Blue/Orange at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre surprises Julie Bainbridge as a fresh statement on mental health care.

Blue/Orange written by Joe Penhall about Mental Health Care
Blue/Orange written by Joe Penhall (Photo by Nick Allsop)

Despite being written fifteen years ago, Blue/Orange seems as fresh a statement on mental health care as if it was penned last month. Canoe Theatre’s production of Joe Penhall’s play introduces Christopher who has borderline personality disorder and is twenty-four hours away from being released from a psychiatric hospital. But his doctor, Bruce, believes his patient should be reclassified and further detained. When he enlists the support of his supervising consultant, Bruce finds there are political and economic influences at work and despite Christopher’s disturbing behavior, Bruce’s supervisor is adamant that he be released. What follows is a dark satire of National Health Service mental health care. Joe Penhall’s brilliant dialogue bounces off the hospital walls as rapidly as the schizophrenic Christopher switches from clarity to confusion.

Simon Mokhele plays a mercurial Christopher, aware of his rights, eager for release one minute, but reluctant the next. He claims that oranges are blue and that Idi Amin is his father. And we are never truly sure whether he is sane or not. When Bruce pushes for a Section Three order, his boss reasons that there are no beds available; that they will have patients on trolleys, like the wacky races. Craig Pinder plays the chauvinistic, stereotypical senior consultant Robert, who threatens ‘You have to play the game and keep your nose clean… or I’ll never make professor and you’ll never complete your specialist registrar training’. Bruce is told to be business-like and to write down the pros and cons of re-diagnosing his patient; the cost of mental care versus the danger to society. As the earnest professional, Bruce, played by Matthew Bulgo, is gradually beaten into compliance and his career brutally destroyed.

Julia Thomas’s interpretation of this three-act play, which takes place within the confines of a consulting room, is well done. By placing the audience around the edge of the room, she introduces a guilty intimacy; we are party to the private doctor /patient relationship and though we ought to leave, it is compelling viewing. The office clock signifies the twenty-four hours within which Bruce fights for his patient and his career. When he fails to protect both, we feel his frustration. Bulgo’s portrayal of gradual despair as he is forced out of his job is as excellently executed as Pinder’s arrogant senior consultant. The audience sits on the edge of its seat as the cast maintains the tension right to the end; the applause, when it comes, is fully deserved.   

Joe Penhall’s challenge to NHS policies of placing psychiatric patients in the community was written in 1999. Fifteen years later, the number of murders by misdiagnosed schizophrenic patients returned to the community continues to rise. This superbly played three-hander leaves us questioning the sanity of the professionals who determine who is sane and who is not. And for how much longer the Government will allow its mental health care policies to rebound to bite its own bottom.


Blue/Orange written by Joe Penhall

Sherman Cymru

Matthew Bulgo, Craig Pinder, Simon Mokhele

Director: Julia Thomas

Julie Bainbridge has written numerous theatre reviews for Wales Arts Review.