Venue: The DramaBarn
Far from an easy-watch, Dramasoc’s The Effect, is a tough pill to swallow. It makes one of many bleak remarks early on, when the white-coat Doctor (Joel Bates) ruefully points out that people are not so much split into the ‘sane, and insane’ but the ‘insane, and not-insane yet’, so pervasive is the shadow cast by mental illness. The doctor’s speech is painfully didactic, pointed at the audience and advocating a need for taking the realm of psychological research seriously. The need to treat the brain as a curable part of the body. But, like everything in this version of the play: it is revealed to be not quite that simple, not quite that easy to solve, the cast of The Effect taking us through the complexities of treating, thinking and understanding illness that resists being put under a strong light.
The plot is therefore very heavy, but does take its time to thicken. Initially, you get the impression you’re watching a well-meaning Black Mirror style scare-analysis of pharmaceutical drugs. Another catastrophic portrayal of the modern obsession with artificiality and easy-cures. It’s set up in this way, with an overly-clinical, humourless Doctor strictly monitoring the pair of test-studies, complete strangers Connie and Tristan, who simply don’t know what they’ve got themselves into: jokingly responding to many of her deadpan questions in the opening scenes and taking the whole thing lightly. This includes the prototype anti-depressants they’ve been paid to test. A little stiff to begin with – thanks partly to the opening gimmick: extras in scrubs who hand the audience their own pills to take and medical bands to wear as they stumble to their seats – I wasn’t sure if I’d been taken in. However, the characters are afforded a credible depth throughout the 2 hour performance: their relationships explored, surfaces lifted. The three lead roles, excellently cast, bounce off one another as the dosage is upped, and their interaction becomes far more personal. Impressively directed by Sam P. Fallon and Sarah Warham, the play often places the actors in a triangle facing the audience, as questions are announced to the two test-patients who reply one after the other, but without apparently hearing what the other has said. Making for fast-paced dialogue, and several comical moments (the play is well-balanced in frequently lightening the mood) this turns what could have been a dull psychiatric test into a raw comparison of very different feelings.
Naturally, the drug achieves its desired effect. It invents happiness but things get complicated when Tristan (Ross Telfer) and Connie (Alice Tones) start to, convincingly, fall for one another. No-one’s clear if it’s the chemical or the chemistry they share that’s causing this, which soon makes for an intense study of the effect of love as tensions fray. It’ll have you gripped by this point, but will drag you further into considering the impacts of mental health itself, doing justice to the thorough research that has gone into this mature and compelling Dramasoc play.
Elizabeth Cooke does an exceptional job of sensitively but powerfully portraying the struggle against depression in some of the play’s most moving scenes, visually and audibly arguing against that lead doctor who is sure that drugs are the only answer. The lighting is well-handled in these scenes, dissolving the sterility of the testing facility and introducing a blanket of oppressive darkness, broken up with a bright spot-light to play up the fragilities of the character on show. In fact, the lighting makes good use of little space and minimal set design throughout the play, making for smooth transitions between half-imagined rooms. The projector adds another dimension as it beams Max Hodgkinson’s realistic MRI animations onto the backdrop, for audience and doctors to consider.
It does stumble in places, such as the slightly over dramatic portrayal of the voice inside the head, which could have been toned down a little. The interactive theatre that greets the audience as they step in, is also a little bit unnecessary. But these are just very minor faults in an otherwise spectacular performance which will definitely set you thinking.