The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th February, 2019
Joe Penhall’s three-hander from 2000 gets a timely revival in this taut new production, directed by Daniel Bailey. Twenty-eight days after being sectioned by the police, Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is looking forward to going home – if the psychiatrists treating him can agree to it. Bruce (young, idealistic) is reluctant to give Chris the go-ahead, while Bruce’s mentor, ambitious consultant Robert is all for it. As Chris is interviewed and assessed, the play brings up the sad fact of greater propensity for mental illness among the black population – well, you try being in a minority, any minority, in an oppressive culture!
Thomas Coombes is largely sympathetic as a twitchy if well-meaning Bruce, trying to do and say the right things, only to find his career jeopardised by ill-advised vocabulary (the ‘n’ word) rather than any misdiagnosis or malpractice. Penhall is very sharp on language, the words used as labels, as descriptors; it’s not just a minefield for professionals. Almost twenty years since its first outing, we are perhaps more sensitive about semantics, more aware of the impact of language. Let’s hope so, anyway.
Richard Lintern is excellent as the suave, glib Doctor Robert Smith, looking for the cure. (I don’t mean to make him sound like the front man of a goth band). His casual manner conceals the professionally self-serving hard-man he really is. But it is Ivan Oyik in his professional debut who proves the most compelling of this talented trio. Oyik’s Christopher is sometimes manic, sometimes lucid, sometimes paranoid, sometimes affronted (rightly so, on occasion!) and is never anything less than magnetic.
Much of the play’s humour derives from Christopher’s responses and reactions, and also much of the tension. As the action unfolds, there is shift after shift in the power structure, with accusations and questions flying around.
Amelia Hankin’s design takes its cue from the title, for its colour scheme, with institutional armchairs and a water cooler set on a diamond dais beneath a suspended framework. It’s a simple, stylish setting, the impact of which is heightened by Azusa Ono’s lighting design. Daniel Bailey’s direction keeps the sometimes-wordy scenes dynamic and captivating, so we are able to follow the argument and the discussions with ease.
I’m not sure that Penhall offers answers, but surely the point of this piece is to raise the question. Thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable fare, this is a riveting performance of what has become a modern classic, and is still utterly relevant today. We’re all supposed to be talking about mental health, but as well as talk, the resources need to be there to support and alleviate mental illness.