In all the best productions there is always a moment when I, in the audience, feel this is the best place in the world to be. In The Effect, the new play by Lucy Prebble as directed by Rupert Goold, that moment came half way through the first part when, in a surprising turn, Jonjo O’ Neil displays some unexpected talents. For a play grappling with serious and fascinating questions, this was a moment of uncomplicated bliss.
But can I trust this feeling? If my feelings can be traced to and manipulated by chemical changes, are they mine? Does it matter? The four characters in the Effect struggle with these questions with various degrees of passion, desperation and urgency. At the same time, life relentlessly moves forward without waiting for the answers. Things happen faster than people can process. And Lucy Prebble’s play, sparkling with humour, wit, ideas and warmth, finds a way to capture the emotional and physical bewilderment and joy as well as the scientific questions. This is science sitting squarely in the middle of everyday life as it should be.
It’s hard to find enough words to praise the performances: Billie Piper always had the talent of tapping into the emotional life of characters but now that talent is honed with fine precision. Her Connie longs for control and emotional truth and Piper makes these contradictions look natural. Jonjo O’Neill’s Tris is an open book and a force of nature but no less interesting for that. Together they create the kind of explosive intimacy I have rarely seen on stage. Tom Goodman-Hill easily embodies the jauntiness of his character but also suggests the complex web of guilt and darkness that lies underneath. Anastasia Hille impresively and slowly peels away layers of fragile control and her character, at her most honest, becomes the heart of the play.
The story takes place in a research facility and the set replicates the clean lines you expect from such a place. Those uncluttered lines, instead of recreating a clinical environment, fuel the explosive and intimate feelings of the characters. In such a place, people have nothing to do but to feel. With little in the way of a set, the lighting takes a life of its own. In the intimate Cottesloe space (some of the audience sits practically on stage), it’s either brightly harsh or unusually low. Either way, it’s rarely used to isolate the actors: this is a world where both actors and audience live together.
Cottesloe has entered the final stretch before its temporary closure for renovation. The last few months have been a triumph, with the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, This House and now The Effect playing in rep and quick succession. Hopefully the Shed will be able to replicate its success.
Revstan gives her own take of the production here.
Update 17/11/2012. It’s all in the details: On press night, members of the audience were given wristbands with the name of the research facility as if they were part of the project (click the thumbnail on the left for a bigger – and legible – version of the photo). I unashamedly love any detail like that and hope this is now a permanent part of the production. Thanks to Naomi for sharing the photograph.