Is love merely the product of a chemical reaction in the brain, or is it something more? The Effect, written by Lucy Prebble and directed by Benjamin Hensen, sets out to explore this question through a love story taking place in the middle of a drug trial.
Connie Hall (Jessie Lawrence) and Tristan Frey (Daniel Watterson) first meet when Tristan offers to carry Connie’s urine sample for her. After an awkward first conversation, Connie ends up carrying Tristan’s sample, and there is already an obvious connection between the two.
The chemistry between actors Jessie Lawrence and Daniel Watterson is an enormous asset to the play. The tension that builds between them is electric, and absolutely captivating. This chemistry is fully displayed when Connie and Tristan sneak out of the clinic into the abandoned psychiatric ward next door. They are both fizzing with energy, and completely infatuated with one another. Connie tries to argue that this is merely the effect of the experimental drug coursing through them, as the drug is designed to stimulate the release of dopamine, the chemical responsible for the rush of excitement you feel when you try something new or when you fall in love. Tristan doesn’t care that his feelings might be partially artificial, and claims that whether it was started by the drug or not, their love is real and they should embrace it.
As the play continues, the giddy excitement of this budding relationship is undercut by a growing sense of anxiety. Every increase in dosage of the drug is accompanied by a violent buzzing, and you can feel the increasingly menacing presence of something horrible about to happen. This anxiety is given voice by Dr Lorna James (Sheena Irving), the doctor overseeing the trial, who starts to feel that the trial is moving in a dangerous direction.
As they receive larger doses of the drug, Connie and Tristan report intense levels of energy and sexual frustration. They find each other painfully irresistible, and when Tristan sneaks into Connie’s room it’s clear that sex is the only possible outcome. The moment the characters kiss, the stage lights go out, strobe lights flash from screens facing the audience, and while the buzzing that accompanies the drug dosage is menacing, the blast of sound the plays now is euphoric. The scene continues to alternate between Connie and Tristan, and light and sound. The entire floor of the stage is covered by a massive brain scan, and the effect of this extraordinary scene combined with the close, intimate seating of Q Theatre’s Loft places the audience inside the brains of Connie and Tristan as they explode. Whether they are exploding with genuine love or with a dopamine overload remains to be seen.
While Connie and Tristan may have been able to release some of their sexual tension, the sense of anxiety only grows stronger from here. Dr Lorna and the audience become more and more concerned by the growing hostility displayed by Tristan, and as the plot unfolds, the play’s examination of love is joined by explorations into the ethics of drug trials, depression, and the limits of neuroscience.
The Effect is a rollercoaster of dopamine-fuelled tension interspersed by moments of charming humour and raw humanity. Running at a little under 2 hours, it felt more like 20 minutes. I highly recommend it.
The Effect’s current season runs until August 12 at Q Theatre. Tickets available here.