When director Alex Coke first read Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, she cried – apparently something of a rarity. And while her and Ronin Theatre Productions’ staging of it didn’t have me wiping away tears, I can’t deny my admiration for its simplicity, which lets Prebble’s words do the talking.
Connie (Jessica Reilly) and Tristan (Ashley Hunt) are taking part in an antidepressant drug trial, spearheaded by champion of such medication, Toby (Matt Blurton), and monitored by Lorna (Alison Stibbe) who – with a history of depression herself – does not favour them. Connie has a boyfriend, yet falls for Tristan, and he for her. But is their love just a side effect of the drug? And if so, does that really even matter?
Each of the four actors give strong, distinct performances, all remaining onstage for the duration. When not acting they watch whoever is from chairs situated in all four corners of the stage – which is surrounded by audience on three sides – depicting the notion of somebody always keeping tabs on you.
Prebble’s text is littered with weighty lines both backing and condemning the use of antidepressants, and it’s funny too. “You don’t get to talk about him, you understand?” Connie cries at Tristan following his description of “some wine drinking, chino wearing c*nt”, automatically assuming he means her boyfriend when actually he’s speaking more generally. It’s highly suggestive of what her current beau is like and possibly what she thinks of him.
At various points the characters talk to each other where they’re barely audible; not lines from the script, just little fillers such as a “thank you” from Toby to Lorna after she hands him something. It’s reflective of the play’s secrecy theme and injects more realism into the overall piece.
There is audience participation of the subtle variety, a test on the guinea pigs which sees them tasked with saying the colour a word appears in on a screen as opposed to calling out the word itself had me engaged in the same test – adding another layer to the audience engagement.
The sex scene between the trialled pair is well done. The lights go out as they kiss in their underwear, to a knowing titter from the audience. You’d be forgiven for thinking that concludes the rendezvous, and it wouldn’t have disappointed me if it did – after all, it’s enough to denote what’s about to happen. But The Effect goes further; switching from blackout to lights up as the humorous stages of their pillow talk are delivered, finishing on a snippet of intercourse convincingly conveyed.
So, no tears on my part as I left the venue of Modern Art Oxford; but with that no distracting lighting, no elaborate stage directions, and no melodramatic acting to cloud an excellent script. “Happy?” reads one of the show’s final lines – I think Ronin and Coke have reason to be.
The Effect plays Modern Art Oxford until 30 March, with a post-show talk on the Thursday.