If a tiny kernel of truth lay buried somewhere deep within Lucy Prebble's play, this production did not find it. Instead it piled more layers of falsity atop those already in the British playwright's text. Combine that with the theatre's 40-degree heat, and the shorthand version of this review would be one long, not-so-silent scream.
The Effect is not really a play: it is a soap opera dressed up as a play by trying on the odd weighty theme for size, much as our politicians try out one policy pronouncement today and its opposite tomorrow. It raises intriguing ideas relating to ethics and the nature of love, and contains the odd keen observation about medical science in general and psychiatry in particular. The play even has fleeting moments of narrative engagement, but when it eventually builds to its overwrought climax and the souls of its four characters are laid bare – that is, the soap slips out of the packaging – do we care? Not even slightly. Why should we care, when one of the characters reassures another who is having a breakdown by saying, "This is a storm. It passes."
This was an exasperating night in the theatre. It ended.
Prebble's potentially interesting premise concerns Connie (Emilie Cocquerel) and Tristan (Firass Dirani) participating in a trial of a new antidepressant drug developed by Toby (Johnny Nasser), the trial overseen by psychiatrist Lorna (Emma Jackson). A side effect of the drug is that it mimics the brain patterns of falling in love, to the confusion of Connie and Tristan and the frustration of Lorna.
No doubt Prebble's play could work better than it did in this production were it kept on a tight leash that focused on that kernel of truth, and were it underplayed. Presenting the work in the round, director Andrew Henry (for Red Line Productions) has his actors shouting and overacting so relentlessly that one might have been inclined to chortle had the heat not been so oppressive. Meanwhile Alexander Berlage's lighting blasts the dazzling sheen of designer Brodie Simpson's white tiled floor, and Benjamin Freeman's live keyboards are by turns effectively eerie, obnoxiously loud or accentuating the melodrama.
I felt like I, too, was trapped in a medical trial to see how one coped with extreme heat and excessive acting simultaneously. I failed.