“A well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show”
Set across the four-week span of a clinical drugs trial, The Effect (2012) is a play which tackles perhaps the highest concept of all: our ability to assess and analyse the workings of our own mind. Penned by Lucy Prebble , best known for writing the briefly-sensational ENRON, it’s revived here by Borders-based company Firebrand Theatre. Ironically though, Firebrand’s clinically-excellent performance throws into focus a few pronounced oddities in the script.
The “effect” of the title is the placebo effect – the powerful medical phenomenon which says that if we think we’re taking a drug, we’ll experience at least some of its benefits. Prebble explores that concept through two parallel storylines: a young couple who may or may not be falling in love, and a doctor who may or may not be depressed. Intellectually, I can see how this all hangs together, but it still felt like I was watching two plays uncomfortably squashed into one. “What is love?” and “Do antidepressants work?” are just very different questions, and I’m not sure it’s possible to tackle them both while doing full justice to either.
Much more successful, for me, were the human tales. On the one hand, there’s a sweet boy-meets-girl story – with the requisite courtship, predictable crisis, and the hope of a reconciliation by the end. It’s a time-worn formula, but it’s well-executed, and the tale has a twist that’s genuinely startling yet fully justified by the plot. Actors Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton do a fine job delivering characters we can love, with Crighton’s physical restlessness also adding plenty of interest to a series of otherwise quite static scenes.
Alongside them we have Pauline Knowles’ acerbic but secretly-warm-hearted doctor, who provides a lot of deadpan humour but clearly has a vulnerable side too. Knowles impressed me with her ability to inject subtle emotion, as did Jonathan Coote, playing the pharmaceutical-company manager with a secret in his past. It’s hinted early on that these two characters have met before, and the details of their relationship are revealed in carefully-measured doses – an ongoing mystery which underpins the first act of the play.
Fine acting and direction are complemented by an effective design. The whole production is stark and monochrome, filled with medical whites and impersonal greys, a choice which serves to highlight rather than diminish the colourful humanity on display. Every now and then the cast break off into stylised sequences set to a techno-inspired soundtrack, punctuating the wordy script while skipping lightly over the duller parts of the plot. At times it all grows a little protracted – and I certainly wouldn’t have minded if they’d cut the last ten seconds of the sex scene – but all in all, Firebrand Theatre do well to thread a coherent path through a complex storyline.
In the end, the effect of The Effect was a mildly frustrating one: the script tries too hard to draw connections, and ends up feeling both crowded and languid at the same time. But that’s no reflection at all on the production company, who once again (see our reviews of Outlying Islands and of Blackbird) have laid on a well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show. All in all, this one’s well worth catching on its remaining dates at Summerhall – for the questions it poses may be disjointed, but they’re still intriguing ones.
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 11 March)
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