At its core, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect asks its audience a question – are we defined by the chemicals in our system? Directed by Louis Catliff, breaking out of his comfort zone as St Andrews Go-to-guy for 20TH Century American drama, the show alternates between the stories of Tristan (Oli Savage) and Connie (Jen Grace), who volunteers in a depression medication trial. The psychiatrist and drug company representative, Dr James (Valentine Moscovici) and Toby (Ebe Bamgboye), are overseeing the operation. In equal measures, funny and heart wrenching, Catliff’s production is certainly one of this semester’s highlights, even if it cannot fully circumvent some slight issues with the script’s ending.
As the trial progresses, Connie and Tristan begin to fall deeper and deeper in love – but is it real, or just a side effect of the drugs they are taking? At the same time, Toby and Dr James are locked in another deep debate– whether depression is born out of a chemical imbalance and could be cured through medication, or if it is a result of the world in which we live and can become an intrinsic part of a person’s identity. All involved give strong performances – Savage and Grace carefully bringing an increasingly manic intensity to their two characters as the prescriptions increase in dosage, and Moscovici and Bamgboye successfully alternating between theoretical arguments and quieter, more contemplative moments. Valentine Moscovici probably gave the stand out performance of the show. As the sole character explicitly living with depression, her moments of intense vulnerability created a much needed sense of pathos in a show that threatened to be overly cerebral at some points.
It would be remiss to fail to mention the show’s brilliant set and tech design. Beautifully clinical and sharp, in terms of set design, the Barron theatre has never been used to
better effect. All white and square, the set brought a sense of scale to the Barron that engulfed the actors on stage, giving an oppressive, almost totalitarian feeling. Although the tech experienced some issues on the night that I saw it, this could be chalked up to working out first night problems, but did not distract in a major way from the overall effect of the play.
All this said, the script looses steam as soon as it moves out of the trial environment in the last few moments of the play. While the majority of the play is very tight in its scripting, the ending feels slightly too loose – with large jumps in characterisation feeling somewhat unearned or not completely explained. While for the most part the production brought out the strengths of Prebble’s script, I felt the shows ending was somewhat unsatisfactory, good performances trying to get the most out of an uneven finale.
This said, this should not detract from what was all around Catliff’s best show. In stepping out of his comfort zone, the director has dared to dream in bigger and weirder directions. Although the script itself was not perfect, and the show experienced some technical difficulties, The Effect is exactly the kind of show that I would want to see more of in St Andrews – unafraid to tackle big questions, unafraid to give an answer.