There is a fantastically bleached and clinical shine to the stage of Freya Judd’s commendable adaptation of The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s follow-up to the smash-hit Enron. The O’Reilly has been well and truly stripped down, creating a bleak and bare hospital miasma that you can almost smell when you take your seat. When the play begins, we already feel like patients in a ward – or prisoners.
It’s a play about science, or about love, or about the relationship between science and love – if there is one. Connie and Tristan are two volunteers participating in a drug trial. Immediately, you have to wonder what kind of people are prepared to take off several weeks – or months, even – from their lives to submit themselves as human guinea pigs for a spare bit of cash. We can gather that they aren’t satisfied with their day-to-day existence, to say the least. Tristan is a drifter; he’s done this several times before – he commits himself to it on an annual basis to earn a pinch of birthday money with which he can go travelling. Connie is a newbie – she’s giving the whole process a shot with some false sense of optimism, but we also learn that she’s in a relationship outside of the facility. Unlike Tristan, she has something to potentially hold onto in her life. Clearly things aren’t living up to her expectations in the real world, but we never really get to the bottom of why she’s here.
Ellie Lowenthal and Calam Lynch are solid as the two leads who, as you might expect, begin to fall for each other, despite strict guidelines under which patients are not permitted to fraternise sexually. They certainly have intense chemistry and are both very strong; Lowenthal is suitably vulnerable, whilst Lynch (whose Irish twang only occasionally stumbled) was perfectly brash. Connie and Tristan’s coming together is all a bit clichéd, but it’s also more complicated than first meets the eye. As the trial progresses, the boundaries are blurred between reality and the drug-fueled haze of the clinic. This isn’t a grand tragedy – they’re not star-crossed lovers – they’re simply trying to ascertain whether or not what they feel is result of genuine heartfelt attraction, or a cruel side effect of excessive quantities of dopamine.
When we’re not watching the lovers, we see the doctors in charge of the facility in its experiments, played with uneasy authority by Sarah Mathews and Will Stanford. Interestingly, their scenes – in which they intelligently debate the ethics and morality of toying with human emotions for the sake of “scientific progress” – typically took place on the higher tier of the stage. I wonder if this was done deliberately, and if it says something about the status or validity of their argument, or – perhaps more interestingly – it signifies their detachment from the reality of the patients they are so quick to narcotize.
The play felt somewhat stretched. Some lines, or even scenes, could have done with brutal trimming. The constant mechanical montage of the cast upping their dosage to blaring techno music grew a little monotonous but it did hammer its message resoundingly. There is a perpetually rigid, stoic and highly repetitive system in place – that was made very clear.
The minor cast members, playing the clinic’s vital supporting but silent staff, deserve a special mention. Without any lines of dialogue, they served as reminders of the motorised and robotic task of experimenting on human beings, and their vacant, blank faces drilled deep into the audience. But I wanted it to delve darker – to descend into a truly Orwellian – almost dystopian – atmosphere of totalitarian paranoia, where it isn’t clear who has the power and who’s in charge, and most importantly who one can trust. Perhaps this was asking too much.
Prebble just doesn’t ask her big questions as sophisticatedly as, say, Tom Stoppard. It’s a fine premise, but the actors seemed strained at times to find their grip with moments of tepid dialogue. Judd has engaged with the fascinating debate at the centre of the play very effectively, squeezing emotionally volatile and unhinged performances from her actors and enhancing the play’s distrustful gage of science. The writing doesn’t tiptoe around its somewhat sceptical philosophical and scientific issues, and it was good to see this production not shy away from them either. The Effect’s central question: how much control do we actually have over what happens inside our bodies, and is it possible to override natural biology, is explored throughout. This is a strong effort which deals well with very sensitive themes.
The Effect is running at the Keble O’Reilly from the 4-7th February