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The Effect

Lucy Prebble
The Other Room & Critical Ambition
The Other Room at Porters, Cardiff
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The final play in the current LoveSick season at The Other Room, in common with its predecessors A Number and All But Gone, asks difficult (perhaps unanswerable) questions about human relationships. This was also the case with director Dan Jones first project at the venue, before his appointment as Artistic Director—Phil Porter’s Blink—suggesting a preoccupation (perhaps an unfashionable one) with this most timeless and universal of themes.

The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s most recent work to date (produced at the National Theatre in 2012, and winner of that year’s Critic’s Circle Award for Best New Play) is about a lot of things: the ethics of medical experimentation, the nature of love, the curability or otherwise of mental illness, the existence or otherwise of free will, the philosophy of mind, and much else. The fact that it also manages to be supremely entertaining is, therefore, something of a bonus.

The set-up is straightforward: Connie and Tristan are two participants in a medical trial designed to test an experimental treatment for depression. The drug affects dopamine levels, thus having an unpredictable effect on the subjects’ emotions. So, when they appear to fall in love, is it the result of animal magnetism, situational stress, or pharmaceutical intervention? What if one of them is, in fact, taking a placebo? And what if the scientists’ own personal issues constitute yet another variable?

Carl Davies’s set is clinically minimal—hospital-style beds, metallic floor and ceiling, harshly lit (design by Joe Fletcher), with video screens on either side displaying apposite physiological data and imagery (design by Zakk Hein). Tic Ashfield's soundtrack is suitably futuristic (although often drowned out, unfortunately, by ambient noise around the venue—a busy pub on a main road).

Neal McWilliams has great fun with the showiest role—Tristan, a cynically mercenary veteran of such studies who begins as a mouthy chancer, and gradually succumbs to forces beyond his control. Director Jones makes excellent use of his gruff Northern Irish speech patterns and ebullient physicality.

Recent graduate Hussina Raja is equally sympathetic as the younger, more thoughtful Connie, an apparently clued-in psychology student whose personal life is already more than complicated enough as the story begins.

Theirs is not the only problematic relationship on show, however. It soon becomes clear that the cool, professional demeanour of researcher Dr James, movingly played by Nicola Reynolds, is something of a façade; and it transpires that she may well be being manipulated by her ostensibly paternal boss, psychiatrist Toby—Jams Thomas—with whom she shares some history.

Prebble’s text is very clever—one almost feels one’s IQ rising as the piece progresses. It wears its erudition lightly, however, replete as it is with humour and pathos. We feel for these confused, conflicted characters; the exception being Toby, who may well be less than entirely trustworthy.

The Effect is a fascinating and profound play, which constantly involves and surprises over its two hours. This is a slickly directed, beautifully performed production.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith