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Review: Being part of The Effect set and Billie Piper and Jonjo O'Neill's hidden talents

ImageIf you are lucky enough to have secured a stalls ticket for The Effect at the Cottesloe then there is a good chance your seat will part of the set.

Lucy 'Enron' Prebble's new play takes place at the residential research facility of a pharmaceutical company, where human guinea pigs - usually students - volunteer for drugs testing in return for cash. The set has a corporate/private hospital feel with muted coloured carpet and minimalist modern sofa's, coffee tables with flower-filled vases and magazines to read.

Audience seating is on four sides with the usual uncomfortable Cottesloe folding seats replaced in the stalls with sofa's and banquettes matching those within the performance space so that they feel like a natural extension. Poly and I had our own two-seater complete with coffee table right on the carpet (probably the most comfortable I've been in the theatre). 

We watched incredulous (well I did) as a couple sat in similar seats opposite, obliviously dumped their coats and bags down on the table. The ushers were hawk-eyed though and it wasn't long before everything was stowed so as not to interfere with the beautiful minimalist lines of the set's decor.

We have two triallists who, curiously, aren't given names in the programme but are named in the performance: Connie (Billie Piper) is a psychology student whose boyfriend is away visiting family and Tristan (Jonjo O'Neill) is a drug trial regular and is using the money to go travelling.

Then there are two doctors, again who aren't named in the programme. Anastasia Hille plays Lorna who is administering the trial but who has obviously had some trouble in her past. Tom Goodman-Hill plays a senior doctor (who's name I can't remember) at the drugs company who is carving a successful sideline on the lecture and conference circuit. He got Lorna the job on the trial.

The play examines love and depression in a neuroscience context, a premise that could easily be dull but is quite the opposite and really well done. Is love merely the body's biological response or is there more to it? Can you recreate the feeling of love merely by tampering with the body's biology? Likewise is depression merely a chemical imbalance that can be righted by drugs?

It is difficult to describe the actual plot without giving too much away so I'll just say that there is a spark between Connie and Tristan but they question whether their feelings are genuine or a side-effect of the drugs they are trialing. Meanwhile Lorna spars with the senior doctor about what the effects of the drug trial show, revealing differing views on mental illness and how it should be treated.

The power of human emotion in the confines of the routine and rigidity of the trials contrasts nicely and is something that director Rupert Goold utilises mostly to great effect, contrasting the bored energy of the triallists with the contained body language of the doctors at work.

I say 'mostly' because the play did feel like it was taking a while to get into an even stride but then it reaches a particular point in the first half that had me sitting up in my seat thinking 'and now we are running'.

Around this, the growing relationship between Connie and Tristan, the way the two spark off each other, is compelling. At one point they show off a hidden talent, party piece I suppose, to the other which is such a lovely scene and certainly memorable (gymnastics and drawing pins is all I will say). In fact Connie and Tristan's story almost overshadows the doctors and their own developing plotline.

There is a touch of Enron's staging in some of the lighting effects and one particularly impressive scene where the carpet is transformed so that it looks like a mosaic floor but otherwise it is simply staged.

The depression debate makes an interesting counter point to the love story but it is the latter which has the stand out performances and most memorable moments. Piper and O'Neill are a joy to watch, particularly from such close quarter and I actually missed them when they weren't on stage. Hille and Goodman-Hill do fantastic jobs too but I think by the time you really notice their story line, that of the triallists has already exploded all over the stage. 

Where the two plots cross is where you get the most surprises.

This was a second preview and it is already in pretty good shape. It does feel just a little imbalanced in its pace but there is enough else that is good, really good about it to distract.

The Effects runs at the Cottesloe, in rep, until Feb 23, 2013 and you can read Poly's thoughts here.


Easy-peasy one or rather two for the price of one.  Rupert Goold directed Mr W in Richard II and even name checks him in the programme. And of course Tom Goodman-Hill was also in Richard II.