The Effect – January 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold

Company: NT and Headlong co-production

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd January 2013

For this new Lucy Prebble play, the Cottesloe had been transformed into a (large) waiting room at a pharmaceutical company facility where trials of a new drug were taking place. We were up on the balcony for this one; our experience of the cramped benches of the House of Commons (This House) had put us off risking more uncomfortable seating from the ‘reality’ school of design. Today’s effort looked quite nice though – simple bench sofas with plenty of legroom – and if you could put up with the ubiquitous mustard yellow colour, it was probably a pleasant experience.

The seating was in two rows and went all the way round a rectangular performance space, with gaps on each side for the entrances which were diagonally opposite each other near the corners. There were low tables in the middle of each row apart from the far end, which had a larger sideboard with a display rack beside it. Vases of flowers stood on the tables, while four more low tables stood in each corner of the central space.

An inner rectangular space was outlined in this central area, and most of the acting was done within it, but occasionally spread throughout the downstairs area. Outlined with subdued strip lighting, the initial set up of this rectangle was in line with the rest of the room: two L-shaped seats stood in diagonal corners, and the flooring and the seats were in the same yellow colour. Above this area hung another rectangle which looked like some kind of lighting, though I didn’t notice it doing anything during the performance. Perhaps it contributed in some way to the projections that appeared beneath it; the central area was frequently adapted with light displays, including laser mapping, a mosaic floor and a video of a brain being flooded with some liquid.

There were also two screens positioned at either end of the balcony which showed various bits of information. At first they displayed the ‘Rauschen’ logo – the company involved in the trial – but they also showed when the drug dosage was being increased, and were used for the Stroop test, where various words are shown and the subjects have to name the colour of the word. All good fun, and for me this set up worked pretty well, with the cast being able to change locations briskly and no real confusion as to location.

The story was pretty simple: we followed two test subjects from their initial interviews through the drug trial and beyond – Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill). There were also two doctors: Dr James (Anastasia Hille) who ran the test and Dr Toby Sealey (Tom Goodman-Hill) who was well up the food chain and involved in senior management at the company. Tristan and Connie developed a relationship and the play was, in part, discussing how much our feelings are controlled by chemicals and how much they are just our emotional reactions to events in our lives. I found this aspect of the play much less interesting. I didn’t care for either of the characters, who seemed bland and featureless, and the extended scenes between them went on for too long; at times it felt like an odd couple relationship drama with some science bits attached. The early scene which set up the pattern of the drug trial, with lots of measurements being taken and showing us the strict timing of each dose, was overlong, and there were plenty of other scenes which started well but continued on past their effectiveness or were simply played at too slow a pace. The cross-cutting of scenes worked well, and both Steve and I reckoned that the play would work much better if around 20 to 30 minutes were surgically removed.

I found I engaged most with Dr James, as she was the only one who really wanted to help others, and on the whole I preferred the exchanges between the two doctors. There were early indications of a prior relationship, and these hints developed through the play to give us a much rounder picture of their characters. The scientific parts of the debate were aired more thoroughly with these two, and although it’s too big a subject to cover fully in one play, it was at least a promising start. Again, trimming the piece to about two hours (it ran for 2 hours 45 minutes, including interval) would help to focus the issues better.

Some aspects of the plotting could also do with more work. It was scarcely believable that Dr James would admit to one of the test subjects that another subject was receiving a placebo despite the emotional tension of the situation, and her vacillation over whether or not Connie could or would stay on the trial was bizarre. There were a number of odd anomalies like that which undercut the impact of the play, and with the sexual scene and nudity, I did wonder if they were just ramping up the sensationalism for the sake of bums on seats to the detriment of the production itself. Not that the nudity was salacious in any way; in many ways that scene was well staged with various brief poses giving a sense of the drug-heightened physicality of the couple’s relationship. But it didn’t add to the central theme of the piece, that we are not just bags of chemical reactions, but something more which is harder to define. The consequence of Dr James placebo revelation was also very predictable in general terms, which blunted the ending for me.

It sounds like I’m asking for a complete re-write, but there was a lot to enjoy as well. Plenty of humour, an interesting subject, and excellent performances from all the cast made for a decent afternoon’s entertainment, and I would be prepared to give this play another try in the future, especially if I hear it’s had further work.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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