Sarah Hodgson , Tuesday 16 October 2012
Those of us who remember when Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange was first staged at the National Theatre in 2000, will recall the sensation it caused.
This was in part due to its stellar cast - Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln, and Chiwetel Ejiofor- and in part due to its uncomfortable concerns of race and mental health.
It looks set to recreate a storm of similar proportions when it comes to Richmond next month. Once more Penhall’s play assembles an excellent trio of performers: Robert Bathurst, instantly recognisable from TV hits Downton Abbey and Cold Feet plays Dr Smith; Gerard McCarthy, best known for playing cross-dresser Kris Fisher in teen soap Hollyoaks, takes the part of Bruce, while up and coming young actor, Oliver Wilson, plays Christopher.
The play has lost none of its power in the intervening years. As Bathurst says: “I thought the play provocative, chilling and very funny - an extraordinary combination of the three. It’s very tightly written and character-driven, it’s just three guys and a bowl of fruit, and while it’s not issue bound it has issues in it, mental health and ethnicity, that we normally bend over backwards to avoid. It deals with those issues full on and unblinkingly.”
According to Bathurst, his character -the louche and arrogant Dr Smith - couldn’t be further removed from Sir Anthony Strallen, “the benign old boy” he played in Downton Abbey. However, despite the fact that the consultant is not a nice guy, Bathurst believes the strength of Penhall’s writing ensures the audience will find themselves drawn to him.
"My character asks why there are more Afro-Caribbean’s with mental problems than any other ethnic group and whether ethnicity should be taken into account. It’s a proper theatrical event and I hope the audience will be sat forward in their seats following the action like a tennis match.
“Joe’s writing is so good that while my character is quite unsympathetic he talks sense and espouses the cause of liberty. He says Christopher should be released whereas the wishy-washy liberal, who won’t acknowledge that Christopher is black, says he should be banged up.”
Penhall’s play pulls no punches in dealing with the subject of race, and the playwright’s approach is one of the main reasons that Oliver Wilson was drawn to playing the part of Christopher.
“I think it is going to be hard to top this part, especially for me as a young black actor,” he says. “I try and stay away from stereotypical plays about knife crime and this is the first major modern character I’ve played. Yes, the character is low status and comes from a poor background and the play deals with racism and the ‘N’ word comes up, but I wanted to do it because the dialogue is rich and the play has a purpose and a weight to it.”
The Blue/Orange tour will mark Wilson’s Richmond Theatre debut, but he’ll be alongside two experienced campaigners who have appeared here before. Bathurst appeared there in a recent revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Gerard McCarthy was part of The Globe’s touring production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. McCarthy says he can’t wait to come back: “It’s a beautiful venue and, because I’m from Ireland, it’s nice to come out the theatre and see The Green and the trees. You can almost forget that you are in London.”
When the Blue/Orange company does roll into Richmond you would be well advised to get along to the theatre and see what all the fuss was about back in 2000. Rest assured, Penhall’s play is still as relevant and incendiary as it was back then.
Blue/Orange, Richmond Theatre, November 13 to 17, for more information and to book, visit www.atgtickets.com/richmond