Joe Penhall’s Play of Two Halves

January 13, 2024
2 mins read


By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Wednesday, November 17, 2010.

Tiata Fahodzi’s tenth anniversary revival of Joe Penhall’s contemporary classic Blue/Orange translates perfectly. It changes from a stepping-stone for then up-and-coming actors Bill Nighy and Chewitel Ejiofor, into an all-female production. With all three accomplished actors totally in character there’s drama, tension, and even comedy before an in-the-round capacity audience in the Arcola Theatre main space.  In this two-hour plus performance the minimalist set is employed effectively.

Enter Juliet (Ayesha Antoine), a young Black woman, who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.  Juliet’s psychiatrist Emily (Esther Hall) doubts her patient’s readiness for release and – anticipating a longer stay in hospital – invites her supervisor, Hilary (Helen Schlesinger) to observe – with the audience – the final critical interview.

With the scene set, Penhall’s preachy and didactic dialogue is directed with some panache by Femi Elufowuju, jr.  Clearly well-researched and as relevant now as during it’s first run, Blue/Orange assumes some specialist knowledge – with esoteric references aplenty to the Mental Health Act and mental health issues, diagnostic practices and issues of academic advancement and professional ethics. A battery of alarming facts and statistics is fused with humourous sparring between these bickering professionals and their patient.

The writer desperately wants to get some things off his chest. Though mostly realistic and credible, these exchanges smother some sparkling wit and cultural references – RD Lang, French poets, Lenny Bruce, Allan Ginsberg and others all get a mention  – for those who know them.

Esther Hall, delicate and thin, captures the vulnerable, enthusiastic and naïve emotions of a newly qualified and not yet cynical professional, frustrated at both the manoeuvrings of her superior and the volatility of her patient.

Chain-smoking Helen Schlesinger (in a piece written long before the ban in public places) enthusiastically pursuing verbal battles with an idealistic subordinate reflects with skill, the arrogance of a superior.

Holding it all together is the incredible performance of youthful looking Ayesha Antoine.  In a difficult and challenging role, the manic traits of mental illness are disturbingly portrayed, especially when the endearing Juliet appears to deteriorate in the concise second Act.

What we soon come to realise though is that Juliet’s best interests are not necessarily at the forefront of the doctors’ minds.  Is it professional rivalry or commitment to care for a patient that is the cause of the tension?

Though dramatically compelling, the confrontations between the psychiatrists in front of their patient didn’t persuade.  And there is something disturbing about the display of immaturity and pettiness of these highly educated doctors. That professional standards could be breached in this way lacked some credibility; and although the acting is top notch, where some understated subtlety was required, shouting and overwrought posturing followed.

The quality of this play is found in a carefully crafted atmosphere of ambiguity. Juliet’s demeanour suggests mental illness, but do our own perceptions of Black people influence this and what happens if you have the power to decide?  The audience is left to ponder.


By Joe Penhall

Directed by Femi Elufowuju, jr

Arcola Theatre

23-27 Arcola Street
London E8 2DJ
020 7503 1646

Until 20 November 2010


 Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

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