HANNAH MIRSKY on an engaging play which explores not one but two taboos: mental illness and talking about race.

blue/orange Corpus Playroom Emma Wilkinson hugh stubbins Joey Akubeze

Corpus Playroom, 7pm, 12th – 16th March, £6/5

Dir: Emma Wilkinson

Mental illness is becoming less of a taboo amongst Cambridge students: recently the topic has appeared everywhere on the Tab from opinion pieces to last week’s theatre reviews. In this respect, Blue/Orange is part of a recent trend here for theatre which explores mental health; however, in this case the focus is more on how it should be treated.

It is also a play which confronts what is, in a way, a more taboo taboo: race. A significant majority of people in Cambridge are white, and, except perhaps for passing jokes, the subject doesn’t come up all that often. When it does, it might make us a little uncomfortable – we might not know quite how to talk about it, might fear accidentally coming across as prejudiced. This is precisely what happens to one of the doctors in Blue/Orange: his words are twisted, despite an original lack of malice, into what seem like some shockingly racist comments.

Another doctor unapologetically announces that, because of a disproportionately high number of black patients with mental illnesses in London, people should receive different treatments according to their race. He presents this as progressive cultural relativism; as though culture were inherently linked to skin colour. This play is worth seeing simply on the basis that it forces the audience to confront such distasteful opinions as this one, and with them, issues surrounding race, privilege and how we talk about race, which might otherwise go ignored.

I realise that I’ve made this sound like a fairly intense, idea-heavy, play. It also has a compelling plot, and it’s pretty funny. The acting is, on the whole, well-executed: Joey Akubeze particularly stands out as the (probably) schizophrenic Christopher. He switches between hyperactive pacing and joking and sullen slouching stillness with perfect ease. He manages to make peeling an orange funny. I did sometimes wonder if Hugh Stubbins’ Robert, a Machiavellian psychiatric consultant and academic, is a little too straightforwardly villainous – even a lighting change seems to emphasise his devious intent – but this might be unavoidable considering the character’s actions. Stubbins certainly does a very satisfactory job with faux-friendly mannerisms.

The trouble is, I wasn’t invested in enough of the characters. While Christopher is both surprising and sympathetic, the doctors aren’t very likeable people – by the end of the play, they are actively dislikeable – and this production never quite succeeds in making them rounded individuals. You’re interested in them for what they’re saying, not what’s going on beneath the surface. To some extent, you need to be able to distance yourself and think critically about their opinions, but the piece would be all the more compelling if the audience was made to care about the characters who hold the opinions. Whilst I left the theatre thinking hard about the ideas which the play confronted, I didn’t really mind what happened to the doctors as individuals: the ending felt a little anticlimactic as a result.

That said, the production is never dull, never flat, and never less than engaging. It’s a dynamic presentation of a fantastically interesting play, and is worth seeing for Akubeze’s performance, for the comedy, for the conflict between the doctors, and most of all because it will not fail to make you think. This is a difficult play to process and discuss, but that only makes it all the more worthwhile.