Brighton Fringe 2017
Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, premiered at the then Cottesloe with Billie Piper in November 2012. Tess Gill directs a taut but quietly masterful play about identity and emotion under the effect of drugs, placebos, and what we imagine ourselves into. The set’s a new high. In addition to lighting and sound design Steven Adams has constructed a clinical white space with moveable heavy-duty beds, featuring a white wall where Chris Smith’s projections – sometimes words appearing slowly, sometimes backdrops like an abandoned asylum, or hospital corridor – crisply locate an action.
Brighton Little Theatre have managed to produce two exceptional shows in the space of three weeks. Urinetown was superb; The Effect, the 2013 play by Lucy Prebble premiered at the then Cottesloe with Billie Piper in 2012-13, is about as different a genre as you could imagine. An underlying bleakness is common to them. Tess Gill directs a taut but quietly masterful play about identity and emotion under the effect of drugs, placebos, and what we imagine ourselves into.
The set’s a new high. In addition to lighting and sound design (operated by Mimi Goddard) Steven Adams has constructed a clinical white space with moveable heavy-duty beds, featuring a white wall where Chris Smith’s projections – sometimes words appearing slowly, sometimes backdrops like an abandoned asylum, or hospital corridor – crisply locate an action. Mostly we’re subjected to brisk facts like ‘Dosage 150mg’ and even ‘Experiment suspended 15 minutes’ betokening an interval.
The Effect’s a clinical romance, there’s chemistry. Two young volunteers are paid to take part in a clinical drugs trial, presided over by Dr Lorna James (Kirilly Long) once a psychiatrist and now ‘just’ a clinician. Jeremy Crow is Dr Toby Sealey the man who hired her; they have history, he’s trying to make amends.
The drugs are super-anti-depressants and it’s important young people without depression test it. Everything’s monitored, even increased height and enhanced hearing and word associations (depressives and optimists) including our happiness secretion, dopamine. One of the side-effects is the highs created make it very likely that young people on this dosage experience heightened feelings… like falling in love.
Sassy psychology-educated Connie Hall (Keziah Israel) now twenty-six (Prebble even lists weights!) finds Belfast-born Tristan Frey (Nick Farr) a mouthy thirty-year-old challenge. He’s all over her in words, indeed his drop-out uninhibited banter – he was tap dancer junior champion in 1994 then it skidded – is compelling. He’s done this before, knows how you break rules. Mobile ban? Just a control mechanism. So they text. And there’s this abandoned asylum next door. And Dr James encounters them after a long scene stealing a first kiss. They’re not meant to engage in sexual activity, all that flooding dopamine; it screws up the tests. That doesn’t stop them though.
Key exchanges between Dr James and Connie Hall discover the fact that there’s a control, of course. It helps Connie’s a psychology student and can articulate and predict Lorna’s caveats. Someone’s given a placebo. It seems Tristan is though in fact we’ve been told the opposite as Lorna James and Toby face off on the crucial debate in the play. Tristan’s ardent and now Connie question her own infatuation levels; things turn ugly. Connie decides to slip Tristan her own tablet mouth to mouth before they can be stopped. Consequences spiral.
It’s Lorna who persistently bucks under Toby’s suave assurances. He’s a seductive talker as she knows to her cost. Doing a Ted Talk handling his disdaining surgeon father’s brain is one highlight, proclaiming of his branch: ‘Thanks to people like you, the Cinderella of medicine finally got to go the ball.’
But Lorna questions the control, the predictive capacities of the mind knowing it’s on medication to mimic or create itself, placebo or not. Prebble asks what ‘natural’ is, what effect drugs really have, perhaps the history of drugs is of failing placebos. It also dangerously asks just what the limits are of consciousness, or self-creating feelings, of medicine itself. Lorna’s own depression finds the outfall of what happens too difficult. Is there a way back? Toby despite his smarm isn’t heartless. He’s helped Lorna climb back before, but what triggered the initial spiral?
Both pairs of ex and uncertain lovers face off the dramatic effects of unmonitored drugs – not just in the couple’s action either. It’s an astonishingly adroit play, muted but livid with consequences and a living not dessicated argument too. Prebble’s luminous intelligence makes light of coruscating information and – like the height of the volunteers – raises us all by two centimetres as we watch it.
Both Jeremy Crow and Kirilly Long give the performances of their careers (that I’ve seen) so far. Long’s containment her querulous dispensing of advice drugs and doubt describes a crumpling arc. Crow exudes the suave assurance edged with doubt as if the scollops of his own brain were beginning to fray, because of Lorna: he’s a brisk if not heartless denier of his own consequences, and beginning to face up to them he learns something else. Israel too is both keenly alert and warmly sympathetic, the bright young woman trying to contain Tristan’s more uninhibited less refined gambits and lucidly interpreting both him and herself. Farr’s excellent as the mouthy edgy troubled Tristan, always prepared to push out his burning boats. Steven Adams also appears as an unscripted medical orderly, ad-libbing as he moves beds and proffers drugs. It’s a perfect integration of stage management.
A superb way to get to know a superb play. It’s difficult to conclude anything but a kind of dopamine’s got into BLT recently; perhaps we absorb it there too. Everything they touch is enhanced, there’s a uniform excellence of cast and production here that’d look perfectly in situ in any off-West End theatre.