GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES ON THE MENTAL WARD...
You’re clinically paranoid, you’re black and you’re bombarded on a daily basis with racism and when presented with an orange, you see the colour blue. You’re then sectioned. But within a month your doctor and his supervising consultant are at war. One thinks you must stay for increased treatment, the other sees you as the victim of an ethnicity-obsessed health service. They bitch, they confide in you, they criticise eachother’s methods openly.
Quite the farce.
Joe Penhall’s play, first seen at the Cottesloe in 2000, is sharp and hilarious. It toys intelligently with the interplay between race and mental health care. It mines decent conflict in places I’d not heard before. But it lacks conviction.The patient is Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya), jibbering and gesticulating just as you’d want him to be. A punchy performance, despite a part erring on the slim side. Is this a mad house he’s trapped in by malignant forces, or is it vital help he desperately needs? Should he leave or remain? (Insert EU joke here).
But as he paces the waiting room, his psychiatrist Bruce (Luke Norris) and his supervising consultant (David Haig) are left to play. Is his race an unwelcome factor in his treatment, should the lack of beds on the ward be taken into account, is he “just like that” and not a concern for the NHS?Jeremy Herbert’s set is a small consulting room the size of a boxing ring sat atop another room we never see, except when walking to our seats. That doesn’t make sense because it really doesn’t. The director Matthew Xia neatly packs the squabbles in here. Tort performances in a tight space.
But Luke Norris overshoots on the concerned, caring doctor. The troubled professional wrestling with obstruction from the authorities and his hippocratic duty. His performance is a frustrating one; seemingly entirely gesture driven. A series of aghast poses and quizzical expressions.
His opposition is the most fullsome character walking on the stage. Despite a hefty part of me dying whenever any character’s motivation is “to finish writing my book”, David Haig’s consultant is a charismatic manipulator and comic joy.
Penhall’s play uses these two to nicely wrestle with the constructed argument. He expertly disrupts our expectations and shifts our allegiances which each revelation from the patient. But it only ever chews. It doesn’t finish the job. I never felt the jeopardy the patient was in. I didn’t rage with the psychiatrist, and the consultant’s tyranny didn’t terrify me. It’s the intelligence and humour of the argument which makes it thoroughly watchable.
But you’re only ever nodding along as if reading an incredibly lively opinion piece in The Times. But in the end, you put the paper down, you leave the theatre; informed, but not moved.
Until 2nd July.
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