Blue/Orange

Blue/Orange

Joe Penhall’s gripping 2000 play about three men in a London mental hospital is the subject of this insightful BBC adaptation. Chris (Shaun Parkes) is a black man who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), so-called because its sufferers are said to be on the border between neurosis and psychosis. Chris’s statutory 28 days of treatment and observation are up and he must either be released or detained further as a possible psychotic.

The attending psychiatrist is Bruce (John Simm), a young, new doctor who wants to extend the patient’s stay, believing him to be schizophrenic. Particularly troubling for Bruce is the fact that Chris has begun insisting that oranges are blue and that he is Idi Amin’s son. Despite those new developments, the senior consultant, Robert (Brian Cox), wants to release the patient and warns that keeping him in the hospital too long might make a return to normal life impossible. He also wonders about the role of race in the diagnosis of black patients.

An additional factor in the doctors’ argument about Chris is the government policy of “de-institutionalizing” mental patients—treating them with drugs on an outpatient basis. In Britain, the practice was first implemented on a large scale during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister and it caused increased homelessness when mental hospitals lost track of patients who failed to come in for their medication. Robert offers an upbeat expression of the policy, telling his subordinate that “the community is the preferred and proper place” for Chris.

Like the original play, this adaptation reveals the cynicism behind de-institutionalization, but goes beyond a simple critique of that policy. Chris’s borderline status precludes any easy answers and Robert points out the real stigma the patient will endure if he is diagnosed with schizophrenia:

It’s not treated with some glamorous and intriguing wonder-drug like Prozac or Viagra. . . They make movies about junkies, alcoholics, gangsters . . . But schizophrenia, my friend, is just not in the phone book.

For his part, Chris observes the increasingly ugly battle between his doctors, which confuses him and intensifies his paranoia. Bruce and Robert come to represent the conflicting thoughts in Chris’s own mind and the camera angles accentuate the link between the doctors’ external struggle and the patient’s internal one. The language is especially compelling. The characters carefully parse and rearrange key words, which serve not only as tokens of sanity or insanity but also as weapons. The process will be familiar to fans of David Mamet, but Penhall covers new and interesting ground.

All three acting performances are strong. Brian Cox is excellent as the ambitious Robert, gradually and artfully revealing the baser impulses that reside beneath the doctor’s polished professional demeanor. Shaun Parkes’s searing portrayal of Chris is the heart of the show and he is particularly good at giving life to the menagerie of concocted—and also legitimate—fears that haunt the patient. One misstep, however, is the art direction in one sequence. During a crucial lunchtime conversation between Bruce and Robert, the two face off in a blue-lit lunchroom while Robert peels an orange on the table between them. The metaphor is far too obvious and it detracts from one of Penhall’s richest scenes. Even so, Howard Davies’s direction is strong overall and the performances create an almost irresistible momentum.

Chris Pepus

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