[Theatre Review] The Effect — Not Totally Effective

The Effect

n.b. Out of professional courtesy, I would like to inform my readers that I am currently helping Checkpoint Theatre to archive one of their upcoming productions. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. None of the actors in The Effect are involved in the project I am working on.

The Effect
13 March 2016, 3pm
Victoria Theatre
25 February–13 March 2016

Audiences and colleagues who have watched The Effect before me rightly pointed out that one of the themes of the play is about the nature and reality of love. However, if we were to look at the bigger picture, the play poses a more fundamental philosophical question: Can the self be reduced to the workings of the brain?

Prebble expounds on this question through two parallel relationships. On one hand, we have Tristan Frey (Linden Furnell) and Connie Hall (Nikki Muller) who are test subjects of the antidepressant drug, RLU37. When they fall in love, questions are raised over whether it is real or is it an effect of the drug.

On the other hand, we have Dr Lorna James (Tan Kheng Hua) and Dr Toby Sealey (Adrian Pang), researchers administering this drug trail. Apart from their professional relationship, this duo once had a turbulent romance.  James suffers from depression and Sealey wants to her to take the drug. James is reluctant as, apart from her doubts about its efficacy, she believes that medication does not solve everything.

And it is in the interactions of the couples that lie the greatest merit and demerit of any play that poses philosophical questions.  The former is seen in the Frey-Hall romance as the questions arise through the plot and conflicts the couple has.

The latter is seen in the doctors’ relationship as Prebble stages a flat-out debate with both characters expressing opposing arguments. Granted that Prebble does attempt to flesh out a past history between the doctors, the argument could still take place even if they were madly in love with each other. As if the main philosophical question is not complex enough, the doctors also debate about the ethics of marketing drugs.

As for the effect of the acting, the actors are competent but not impressive. Furnell and Muller wonderfully feed off each other’s energy and are completely at ease on stage. However, Muller adopts an accent that, while believable, restricts how she expresses herself. She sounds perpetually excited and there is hardly a modulation in tone. While Tristan Frey is Irish, Furnell makes the wise decision of adopting a very light Irish lilt to play his character. This gives him more space to work with the demands of the scene.

Oddly enough, Tan Kheng Hua and Adrian Pang decided not to adopt an English accent which makes it rather odd given that both actors are more than capable to do so. More importantly, they mar an otherwise good performance by not being able to sustain the energy in the quieter moments.  Even when Dr Lorna James unravels, Tan’s portrayal is too inward that I found it difficult to sympathise with her. Instead, it feels like I am observing a curiosity from afar.

While many productions do create multiple physical and psychological spaces within the confines of the same set, the division is not clear enough in this production. For some reason, it feels rather crowded when all four actors are on stage. Furthermore, even when the set is altered to suggest a different space,—such as when the doors of the lab are tilted diagonally outwards to suggest the open windows of an abandoned asylum—Furnell and Muller do not make the effort to create the sense of a new space.

That said, set designer Wai Yin Kwok must be praised for the futuristic and clinical set. This is complemented by Guo Ningru’s sound design of static noises or the humming of the machinery which create an unsettling atmosphere.

If my review were akin to the results of a drug trail, it would be what Dr Lorna James had expected: Some positive effects but these are ultimately inconclusive.

Other Reviews

“This is your brain on love: Pangdemonium’s The Effect by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Theatre Review: The Effect by Adibah Isa, Buro 24/7

“Is It Love, Or Is It The Dopamine: The Effect by Adelyn Tan, Word of Mouth – Raffles Press

“Theatre review: Romantic prescription in Pangdemonium’s The Effect by Naeem Kapadia, Today

“The Effect of love — in 4D” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“The Effect of Love and Other Drugs” by Seewah Ho, What’s Next