I’m going to begin with an embarrassing disclaimer: I really don’t enjoy plays. Apart from the odd panto as a kid and a school trip to watch Hamlet in year eleven, nothing I have seen has really had the desired dramatic effect on my life or memory. Now, however, I could confidently say that UEA Drama Society’s production of Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect definitely made a lasting impression, addressing the issues surrounding topical mental health debates and posing the emotive question; is it possible to manufacture love?
Centring around two test subjects trialling a new antidepressant in a sterile lab facility, main characters Connie and Tristan are shut off from the outside world and monitored closely by two doctors seeking a successful run of the new drug. After being enclosed in the space for a number of days, Tristan and Connie begin to develop romantic feelings for each other, but as the characters of the doctors remind the audience in their increasingly emotionally-charged discussions – how much can their feelings be trusted? An interesting parallel plot also begins to develop between Drs Lorna and Toby, and emotions connected to recent traumatic memories start to cloud their research. The play struck me as a fascinating character study, and the singular setting of a medical facility and the quartet of characters gave the impression that the audience had been invited to witness an intimate situation, one that almost felt like the audience was sneakily overhearing.
The choice of room for UEA Drama Society’s production, however intentional, really worked well for just this reason. There was muted sound from the Scholar’s bar next door, and the audience was spread around the edges of the room, lending a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere that played well alongside the plot’s subject matter. The use of no prop furniture aside from two chairs that were switched around over the course of the play by the actors also contributed to the intimate air. The acting, moreover, was superb. There were a couple of scenes where I could feel my friend sat on my left twitching with anger at some of the vicious arguments had between doctor and patient, and even a couple where the friend sat on my right’s eyes would be watering profusely at the more distressing final act. All quite involuntary reactions, but very telling of the high quality of performance and direction.
Despite a few shaky lines delivered towards the beginning of the play, perhaps due to initial nerves, the characters quickly redeemed themselves and the audience was immersed in an expressive drama filled with depression, love affairs, timed doses and tiny white medicine cups. Special mention has to go to Sophia Dibbs as Dr Lorna James for her heart-wrenching portrayal of a downward spiral into depression, and to Tom Guttridge for his depiction of the progressively more unstable test patient Tristan. Disappointingly, the play only ran for three nights, but I doubt I’ve seen the last of these accomplished performers. I am expecting great things from everyone involved in the production.