Blue/Orange, Crucible, Sheffield

Prejudice in black and white
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The Independent Culture

Oranges may not be the only fruit, but they may not even be only orange. According to the hapless psychiatric case Christopher, they are clearly blue. This is the first major revival of Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, the play that made his name at the National Theatre and in the West End.

Oranges may not be the only fruit, but they may not even be only orange. According to the hapless psychiatric case Christopher, they are clearly blue. This is the first major revival of Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, the play that made his name at the National Theatre and in the West End.

In Kathy Burke's fleet production, Penhall's dialogue generates red-hot tension as the three characters tread through a minefield of arguments and issues: the underwhelming response of the National Health Service to those with mental health problems; doctors playing off professional ethics against career prospects; and the uncomfortable conflict between racial prejudice and acquired political correctness.

The thrust stage of the Sheffield Crucible lends itself well to this semantic competition as the three characters dodge around one another's verbal lobs. What takes place on the minimalist set, clinically grey apart from a bowl of Day-Glo oranges and a blue strip edging the stage, is far from drably monochrome. It's like watching a boxing match, only less blatantly bloody.

We care what happens to Christopher, the black guy isolated in so many ways and whose problems go deeper than the colour of his skin in "white city". Twitching, tweaking his hair and tugging at his T-shirt, Jimmy Akingbola plays him as a ball of nervous energy, but one with a wry sense of his own importance at the centre of a debate between "Mr Bruce", the earnest but inexperienced young doctor treating him, and Robert, the cynical consultant.

But Christopher is a whole lot more than "a bit jumpy, a bit brusque, a bit shouty, a bit OTT - but hey that's maybe what you do where he comes from", as Robert glibly dismisses his rantings. He actually comes, Bruce icily points out, from Shepherd's Bush. But that's the least complicated thing about someone who claims that Idi Amin is his father.

The volatile patient appears not to be the only one with an overburdened nervous system: all three fully realise the ambiguities of their characters. Bruce, played with a strong Liverpool accent by Shaun Evans, can barely contain his pent-up anger and increasing contempt for his manipulative superior, and you can't help sympathising with his frustration at his patient's foibles.

As Robert, the puffed-up consultant, whose patronising body language extends to the tips of each finger-wagging gesture, Roger Lloyd Pack is the kind of old "Maudsley-trained" smoothie of which you hoped the medical profession had rid itself. Pretentious and careerist, he's perhaps most truly in character when, trying to provide a plausible reason for Christopher's apparent fruit-colour blindness, he misquotes Paul Eluard's poem "La terre est bleue comme une orange" with all the familiar authority of a man who thinks he knows everything.

To 26 February (0114-249 6000); then Theatre Royal, Northampton (01604 624811), 1 to 5 March; Theatre Royal, Brighton (0870 060 6650), 8 to 12 March; Arts Theatre, Cambridge (01223 503333), 22 to 28 April

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