Love, identity and mental illness under the microscope.

Bille Brown Studio, Queensland Theatre Company

June 13, 2014

The Effect, a new play from acclaimed young British writer Lucy Prebble, is an achingly raw composition about the way that we live our lives, the way that we fall in love, and whether it really matters in the end. It raises questions that only the individual can answer, including whether love is truly anything more than a chemical attraction.

Uptight psychology student Connie, (Anna McGahan), signs up for the clinical trial of a new drug – a super anti-depressant. Separated from the outside world, she forms a strong bond with fellow test subject, happy-go-lucky Tristan (Mark Leonard Winter). But is it true love, or just a side-effect? The supervising doctor and her superior discourage the burgeoning relationship as it threatens the results of the trial, but it soon becomes apparent that they are struggling with their own past relations.

Winter is brilliant from the moment he enters the stage, maintaining the free spirit and relentless optimism of his character throughout the play. McGahan starts out shakily, with jarring inflection and seemingly forced delivery, but eases quickly into the role and gives a heart-wrenching performance overall. Angie Milliken is dynamite in the role of Lorna James, the doctor in charge of the drug trial – her rigid posture, sharp dialogue and emotional delivery brings her character convincingly to life. There’s believable chemistry between Tristan and Connie, and the growing tension between Lorna and her superior, Toby (Eugene Gilfedder), is palpable. Gilfedder also gives an engaging performance, particularly in his TED-talk-style monologue, but his character seems to act as more of a prop, providing a backstory for Lorna and presenting the more worn-out side of the ongoing debate about depression.

Making her directorial debut for QTC, Sarah Goodes has created a captivating piece of theatre, making excellent use of the small space and drawing physical comparisons to highlight those being made in the dialogue – a scene showing Connie and Tristan simultaneously engaged in conversation with Dr James about their growing feelings is particularly effective.

The play raises a slew of questions that audiences will mull over long after the lights are dimmed on the final scene, questioning everything from the stigma placed on mental illness to the nature of identity and the reality of human emotions. Monologues delivered by Toby and Lorna are the primary source of factual information in the performance, with a heavy focus on the ‘depression debate’ – whether it is, as Toby states with conviction, a growing epidemic that needs to be medicated or, in Lorna’s view, a personality trait that allows some people to see the harsh reality of the world more clearly than others. Perception and bias, blame and guilt, cause and effect – the performance is thought-provoking and audiences are constantly prompted to reconsider their views as more information is revealed about the characters and their true motives.

The intimacy of the Bille Brown Studio provides the perfect venue for such a personal and stirring performance. Minimalist sets designed by Renee Mulder are used effectively, with overhead fluorescents and a white-lit floor contrasted against shining black tiles to create the clinical setting. Sound designer Guy Webster uses subtle background sound to build tension, which combines with less subtle techniques such as a verbal countdown before each new dosage is taken by the test subjects. Webster’s music and Ben Hughes’ lighting are used in perfect harmony to show the development of Connie and Tristan’s relationship and their scene of passion, choreographed by Bill Simpson, is executed with skill, strength and style.

The Effect is a compelling performance with a superb cast that will stay with its audiences long after they have left the theatre.

The Effect is at Queensland Theatre Company from June 7-July 9 and then transfers to Sydney Theatre Company from July 10-August 16.