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Play by Joe Penhall. Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2. Telephone 020 7494 5075.

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      06.06.2001 05:02
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      Waiting for hours on end to get into a closed room full of people can't be a good thing, methinks. Especially if the waiting is done under an unusually scorching London sun. No, I'd say that isn't something to be recommended. Especially if it is being done while ostensibly on holiday, or at least on a break/long weekend/whatever. On the other hand, depending on what's going on in that closed room full of people, it might just be worth one's while. The waiting in question was done by the undersigned in Leicester Square, London, before the "touristy" Leicester Square Half-Price Theatre Booth. Of course it's touristy, there are tickets for the performances of the evening at the very best of London West End's theatres at half price - no quibbles, no gimmicks (apart from a booking charge). But I for one definitely do not mind being called touristy if this queueing business gets me half-price tickets, with the attendant possibility of making my money stretch for 2 plays instead of 1. Because let's face it, whatever the skeptics may say, theatre in London is as good and varied as it gets - or else it could be that being a theatre buff I can never get enough of theatre. After the interminable wait, I found that tickets for most plays were still available. Having already seen the "must-do's", I was left with a list of lesser-known choices. There were the obvious, of course - "Feelgood" had been endlessly reviewed by everyone and their mother given its proximity to the UK general elections. I opted, instead, for a newish play positively commented upon in www.whatsonstage.com : blue/orange That's right: blue/orange, by Joe Penhall. Not a play I'd heard of previously, personally. The play is a three-hander, produced by the Royal National Theatre, and performed in the relatively intimate Duchess Theatre, off Covent Garden. For the record, it has won a number of prestigious awards
      , among them BEST PLAY in the Evening Standard Awards 2000, in the Critics' Circle Awards 2001, and in the Laurence Olivier Awards 2001. The play is directed by Roger Michell, and on the night I attended it was given life by three outstanding actors: Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ok, now that we've been over the de rigeur stuff, let's get to the play proper. Comparisons to Yasmina Reza's smash hit "ART" cannot be avoided, of course, and even from the first few minutes the comparison springs to mind. This is not to say, however, that the play is a rip-off or in any way an inferior copy. It is merely the three-hander nature of the play and the playing off each other releasing in the process a spew of emotions, that brings about the comparison. Essentially, and without giving anything away, the play is set in a mental institution, with a patient who believes he is the son of an African dictator on the eve of finally being discharged from the institution, following one-on-one treatment by a young, ambitious psychiatrist. Upsetting this delicate balance, however, we get the senior consultant in this mental institution, whose priorities do not necessarily coincide with the well-being of the patients. One of them wants the patient discharged, the other wants him kept on for further treatment to complete his re-integration into society. In order to get his way, and acting partially on the basis of a revelation made by the inmate himself, the consultant does not hesitate to manipulate the situation and the inmate to put spokes in his junior colleague's career advancement. The tightly-woven emotions and rollercoaster of mental games and situations make of an otherwise bland play a breathtaking spectacle of human frailty, ambition and conscience. It is difficult, nigh impossible, to pinpoint one of the three actors as the best. The three are incredibly believable, the only thing unbelievable being that they ha
      ve each given anything less than their whole 100% effort into the creation of their respective characters. Characterisation has never been more satisfying, I dare say. Oh, what I wouldn't give to have a go at interpreting any one of the three, even if only for a rehearsal... The mesmerising performance is aided and abetted by a great backstage team - the lighting and set designers deserve all the awards that have been poured upon them. The set is transformed into a square elevated above the audience, with part of the audience being seated (extremely close to the actors) on the stage itself, in such a way that the square becomes a small nearly claustrophobic acting-area in the round, surrounded 360 degrees by the audience. The blue/orange of the title becomes apparent, even before its other deeper meanings are brought to light (oh my, even in a theatre op I can't resist my horrible puns... ), by blue/orange lighting on stage. Minimal is the key word here. The set basically consists of powerfully-lit chairs on three sides, endlessly moved and re-arranged, and a centre glass table with a bowl of orange oranges on top. Nothing more. It is the characters who do the rest, moving around and even more importantly manouvering themselves and their partners within the confines of the stage-cum-mental institution. In short, this is a play which deserves to be seen, for its outstanding dramatic performances, its original setting, its sheer force and panache, and the way it tackles in some depth (and then some) the themes of racism and mental disorders. Seeing is believing, in this case. The title blue/orange, incidentally, refers in part to the patient's quirk of claiming that the oranges he sees (and we see) on the table are in fact BLUE.

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