Blue / Orange, Arcola Theatre, London<br/>Novecento, Donmar Trafalgar, London<br/>Macbeth, Barbican Pit, London

Two psychiatrists, tasked with helping a troubled girl, have enough hang-ups of their own
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's more than one way to melt a slice of Emmental.

You can call it fondue, cheese on toast or Welsh rarebit, but it's always comforting, hot goo. The psychiatrists in Blue/Orange who sat down drunk to hot goo a few nights ago are now falling out at work over definitions – of the meal and of the young black patient in their mental health institution: is she suffering from borderline personality disorder, cultural bias or is she merely "an uppity nigger"? Like the goo, the girl is the same, however defined: volatile, variable and hard to read. Human, in fact.

Joe Penhall's play staggered under the weight of awards 10 years ago, with a bewitching cast. It was written for three men. Femi Elufowoju, directing this eye-catching revival, has laudably attempted to give it a new spin by making the three characters female. That this only partially works, despite committed performances, is down to Penhall's superb writing. Blue/Orange is not only about the mind, it is about the alpha male. It is the winningly off-beat but ultimately supercilious supervisor who cruelly wrongfoots the punctilious registrar at critical moments, as they determine the suitability of releasing Juliet after 28 days on a Section 2 committal.

Helen Schlesinger as the hospital superior, Hilary, plonks her feet apart and pokes her cheek with her tongue, but this is implausible. Women exert their authority differently. As Emily, her junior, Esther Hall demonstrates terrific range as she, the scrutiniser of maddening Juliet, becomes the scrutinised in a situation that rolls out of control, propelled by good intentions, indignation and self-defence. It is hard to find the diminutive patient intimidating, and the indecent act that brought her to the institution in the first place is anatomically weird – oranges not being, shall we say, bananas. But Ayesha Antoine's performance covers a lot of ground, her mouthy unpredictability is entirely recognisable, not least by a delighted, mostly young, audience. In the way of great comedy, Blue/Orange touches on great themes: self-advancement at the expense of others, perceptions of sanity, the need for a dad.

The image of the foundling babe has cried and cooed its way into the hearts of caring souls since storytelling began. From Moses to Mowgli, from Oedipus to Perdita, the babe who starts its journey alone has a remarkable road ahead.

Days-old Danny Boodmann T D Lemon Novecento has been donated to the cruise liner Virginian, possibly a swap for soft furnishings filched from the ship then cut and sewn into smart arrival outfits by the dextrous folk in steerage. His name derives, in order of appearance, from the deckhand who finds him, the logo on the citrus crate he lies in, and, finally, the big finish, chosen by his accidental foster father, who wants to mark the beginning of the 1900s. The crate is left on the grand piano: the baby's fate is sealed. He will grow up to be the man who sits down at the piano and plays Jelly Roll Morton off the stage.

Telling the boy's story is trumpeter Tiny Tooner, Novecento's sole actor, a narrator who veers between Frank Sinatra, with his even-featured, trench-coated, easy manner, and the Ancient Mariner, fixing his rapt audience with his glittery glare, unfolding the maritime tale remorselessly until its classical ending. And here is an outstanding performance by Mark Bonnar, a feat of virtuosity in its scale and range, as he conjures up the self-possessed and the dispossessed – the pampered in first class, the desperate in steerage, the overbearing captain ("Like many men accustomed to living in uniform, he had ended up thinking in uniform too"), the oily MC, the front man who "has a great face for a band leader", the crew who risk their lives to keep the wealthy afloat, and the singular pianist himself, who grows up at sea and never leaves.

Written in 1994 by Alessandro Baricco and wittily translated by Ann Goldstein, Novecento is directed with brio by Roisin McBrinn while Paul Keogan's creative lighting, Paul Wills's heavy-metal design and Olly Fox's music fill the stage. A thrilling voyage.

The setbacks and breakthroughs on a difficult journey usually mean more to the traveller than to those who hear his exhausting tale. Song of the Goat, a Polish-based company, speaks in the notes for its interpretation of Macbeth, of explorations lasting several years. I don't doubt that this was a thrilling adventure for all those concerned with unravelling the tragedy: the company has pulled the threads of the original play so that the fabric takes on a texture of its own, warping its words, and adding song and instrumental accompaniment. Odd, for the music is already there, in Shakespeare's brimming text. In this 70-minute final fit, there are recognisable speeches, but also much gabbling over chants and stick-wiggling, never good news. For all the undoubted engagement and energy of the cast of eight, it feels as though a fine Elizabethan doublet has been snipped to bits and turned into a hankie.

'Blue/Orange' (020-7503 1646), to 20 Nov; 'Novecento' (0844 871 7615) to 20 Nov; 'Macbeth' (0845 120 7500) to 20 Nov

Next Week:

Kate Bassett sees public and private morality stripped bare in Oscar Wilde's The Ideal Husband