Analysis of Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall

This essay was originally submitted for the Writing For The Stage 1 module in my 2nd year of university. It is one of two essays that I achieved a mark of 70 on and I include it here for posterity. 

Blue/Orange is a play written by Joe Penhall and premiered at the Cottesloe Theatre on April 7th 2000 as part of the Royal National Theatre and starred Chiwetel Ejiofor as Christopher, Andrew Lincoln as Bruce and Bill Nighy as Robert. It was directed by Roger Michell. Set in a 21st Century London Psychiatric Hospital, it has a black comic edge in the way that it deals with the issues of mental health, class, status and racial prejudices. This essay will set out to analyse the themes behind Blue/Orange and discuss what it takes to make a good play.

Blue/Orange has been performed a number of times over the years since its initial premiere. Following a successful run in 2000, it transferred to London’s West End at the Duchess in 2001. The play was restaged by Plain Clothes Theatre Productions in 2008 for a tour around the South West including shows in Bristol and Bath and in 2012 it was restaged again by Theatre Royal Brighton Productions, directed by Christopher Luscombe. Blue/Orange has also been reimagined as an all-female production by director Femi Elufowoju Jr in 2010 and a television adaptation by Joe Penhall for BBC Four which starred Brian Cox, John Simm and Shaun Parkes.  Like many of Joe Penhall’s works, Blue/Orange is a trialogue, as it features no more than three characters. Penhall explained that: “I always want to boil everything right down.” It is interesting to note that during rehearsals of Blue/Orange in 2000, Penhall initially wanted to cut the moment when an orange is peeled on stage, feeling that it may be clinically inaccurate, however he was overruled by the director for the benefit of the production.

Dialogue is an essential part as it helps to reveal things about characters such as their backstory and personalities. It can also be crucial to driving the plot forward. Dialogue, however has to feel natural and this can be achieved by the use of colloquialisms for characters who would be likely to use them in a real-life setting. This again contributes to the establishment of character. “Dialogue is characters conveying information about themselves, about each other, about events.”

Penhall establishes Christopher through the dialogue of the other characters. For example, when Bruce states that Christopher has had a “peripatetic childhood,” it suggests that Christopher has had a disjointed and problematic upbringing.  “He’s on the White City Estate,” also helps to reveal something about where Christopher has been living before being admitted into the psychiatric hospital. “Le Monde est Bleu comme une Orange,” this shows that Robert is an educated man, however he is slightly misquoting the opening line of a poem by Paul Éluard and suggests that he has blasé and relaxed attitude to making sure he gets things right. The correct opening line is: “La terre est bleue comme une orange,” which translates as ‘the earth is blue like an orange.’ Bruce appears not to understand the colloquial dialogue of Christopher: “Sorted for Es and whiz.” This shows that Bruce is of a different social status to Christopher and is not familiar with his dialect.  “I’m ready to give  you a statement. What’s the procedure for that?” The final line of the play, this indicates that Bruce’s character has grown from being one not to follow the correct procedures to realising the importance of doing so. It establishes that his character is different by the conclusion of the piece. 

Setting is another important aspect of how to make a good play. “Within the reality of the play, ‘space’ refers to the rooms, landscapes and settings of the play’s action.” The setting of Blue/Orange takes place over twenty-four hours in a modern London NHS psychiatric hospital: The action begins in Act One in a consultation room. There is a water cooler and a round table with a large bowl containing three oranges. The minimalist setting allows us to concentrate on the characters and not be distracted by the background.

Mental health is a significant theme behind Blue/Orange and one that shapes the entire basis of the play. ‘Because I’m a Brother?’ This is the first moment in Blue/Orange where we realise that racial prejudices will play a significant role. Christopher is using the term ‘Brother’ in its colloquial sense to mean Black. Joe Penhall is delving into the complex issue of Black mental health which ties neatly into the play’s other significant theme, that of racial prejudice. Black and minority ethnic groups are reported to have significant problems with access to necessary health care as compared to the majority of the White population and as the play progresses we can see this through the way in which both Bruce and Robert deal with Christopher.

Comedy is vital in a play. “Without light how can we possibly create shadow?” Through the comedic style of Blue/Orange, it becomes evident that Joe Penhall is potentially creating an important message about the standard of Mental Health Care received in modern Britain.  “My twenty-eight days,” This reveals that Christopher has been detained under a Section 2; an assessment order which allows the patient to be held for up to twenty-eight days and cannot be renewed. Christopher’s twenty-eight days are up and he is now eligible for release. When Bruce tells Robert: “I want a Section 3,” it can be seen as a reflection on the standard of mental health care received by the Black community. For example, it is a fact that Black and ethnic minority groups are more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic and compulsory detained under the Mental Health Act. Therefore it can be supposed that Penhall is extending the message in his play to consider the state of Mental Health Care for the Black and ethnic minority community in Britain. “A ‘cure’ for ‘black’ psychosis.” This line reveals a lot about Robert’s attitudes towards Mental Health Care for black and ethnic minority groups.

“The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” All good plays are constructed along this simple premise. Blue/Orange follows a three-act structure with a single premise running throughout its duration; that of the imminent release of Christopher.

“What is the driving force in all plays? The answer is conflict.” Blue/Orange creates conflict in a number of ways. Firstly this is done through the debate that Bruce and Robert have over releasing Christopher or having him detained under a Section 3. Secondly conflict is created through the relationship between Bruce and Robert. “It’s not my job to listen to you,” this shows Robert’s increasing frustration towards Bruce’s continued insistence over Christopher. As the play progresses we see their relationship become more strained as Bruce struggles to do what he believes is right against Robert’s determination to play things by the book. This then leads to a third conflict created through the relationships between Christopher and Bruce and Christopher and Robert.

‘There should be a definite outcome to the protagonist’s difficulties.” By the end of Blue/Orange Christopher is allowed to go home thus resolving the conflict over whether or not he should be released. “I’ve fucked it up, haven’t I?” This shows that Bruce has reached a point whereby he has potentially irrevocably damaged his career prospects, however this latest conflict is seemingly resolved by Robert’s reluctance to involve his department in a scandal. “I’m in no hurry to have the good name of my department dragged through the mud.” This does not spell the end of Bruce’s predicament, however as Robert declares: “You will not be employed by this Authority again.” Therefore the final outcome to Bruce’s difficulties in Blue/Orange is the loss of his position at the hospital. Blue/Orange ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger as the final conflict between Bruce and Robert is left unresolved. This is an interesting technique used by Joe Penhall and is perhaps a way of generating a discussion outside of the performance.

Blue/Orange is a piece that obeys much of what is known to make a good play. It establishes character through strong and natural dialogue, has a minimalist setting which requires there to be more concentration on the characters and a plot that runs throughout its duration creating conflict along the way. Furthermore Joe Penhall creates an underlying social message that grounds the comedy of the play into a deeper meaning. Whilst the audience might initially find Christopher’s actions amusing, as it becomes clear that his entire future his controlled by the whim of the NHS, we realise the hidden message behind it. Blue/Orange is not a safe play and leaves you with more questions than it answers and this therefore is surely the essence of a good play.


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