Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

tristan amd connie

A trial for love with Richard Scott as Tristan and Lauren Rote as Connie

The Effect

Hall Green Little Theatre Studio


Clinical trials. We hear a lot about new drugs for all manner of ailments. Success of drugs for cancer, high blood pressure and the like can all be measured, a simple before and after comparison.

It’s easy with the plumbing and mechanics of the body, but not so easy when it comes to the brain where knowledge is, at best, primitive.

Indeed, Dr James tells psychiatrist boss Toby that one day we will look back on our knowledge of the mind with the same amazed amusement as we look back on the four humors.

Dr James, by the way, is running the clinical trial in Lucy Prebble’s highly charged play, a play which poses far more questions than answers, after all, if the finest medical minds can’t find a sure-fire cure or even reason for depression, we can hardly expect a playwright, no matter how skilled, to solve the problem for them.

And she is skilled. This is an unusual play, one that makes you think, one that challenges and one that throws a glimmer of light on the terror of depression – and Dr James, wonderfully played with a full gamut of emotions by Zofja Zolna, is a sufferer - the condition follows her around like a shadow.

Amid a trial of a new antidepressant we have two parallel love stories. First there is the quiet, unassuming Connie, played beautifully by Lauren Rote. Connie has a boyfriend and is a psychology student. She faces 24 weeks of paid isolation with an untried, untested, until now, drug.

There she meets Tristan, played with a lovely manic zeal by Richard Scott. He’s an old hand, paid trials almost a job, he knows the ropes and swings on all of them. His life might be full, but we find out, full mainly of emptiness.

We have the routine opening with Dr James asking about health and lifestyle, do you smoke, have you taken drugs . . . a tick box exercise to ensure, on paper, the integrity of the trial and the safety of volunteers.

Dr James and tristan

Zofja Zolna as Dr James talking to Tristan with a nurse played by Amanda Nickless

Tristan lies. He smokes, does drugs and pretty much everything else he says no to – he’s a rebel, cocksure, randy, in charge . . . or so he wants the world to believe.

The initial form filling also poses the first question as Dr James asks Connie if she is depressed and she replies she is sad sometimes, and feels depressed – so what’s the difference? It’s the contrary nature of our language that you can be fed up, sad, call it what you will and claim to be depressed –  but that's light years away from clinical depression.

Dr James’ own history stems back a decade or so with a marriage break up, a family death and a conference where she fell for and slept with an eminent  psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist being Toby, played by the ever-reliable Jonathan Richardson as a rather know-it all, supercilious head of the research facility. He has hired his former lover Dr James to run the trial to give her some help after what seems to have been a rough few years - or is it merely an attempt to make amends?

Her name we discover is Lorna as she becomes a person rather than white coated physician, while we also discover that Toby has quite a reputation of a somewhat opportunistic amorous nature on the conference circuit.

It starts with urine samples with Connie and Tristan, not the most romantic catalyst, but it grows from there as we see them becomes closer, Connie is losing her inhibitions, Tristan never having any. Connie is still wary and worries that their feelings could be caused by the drugs to which Tristan replies: "I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect.".

It seems excitement increases dopamine levels in the brain, and our test couple have moved to top of the class in the latest brain scans. Their telemetry boxes both recorded falling off at the same time, which is not a euphemism, but might as well be.

This delights Toby as it proves the drug is working – except Dr James points out that one of the pair is on a placebo, so the levels could actually be caused by love, which blows his theory out of the water – or should do, but for a subtle twist which means all bets are off.

The scene is set, a pair of doctors with history, a couple of volunteers falling in love, drug induced or not, and the tell-tale telemetry boxes.

toby and brain

Jonathan Richardson as Toby with his lecture circuit party trick with his cardiac surgeon father's brain

So now comes the angstfest. Connie, who we suspect might actually suffer depression, rows back from her passionate affair. Is her passion from a pill? Tristan’s passion drifts into obsession verging on anger and madness.

Meanwhile, on a more academic than carnal level,  Dr James clashes with Toby’s view that depression is merely a chemical imbalance in the brain he can treat with pills.

To her people with depression see the world more clearly and their condition is brought on by external factors far beyond the chemistry of the mind, but then, is she merely just blaming him for not actually owning up as the cause of her own plunge into the blackness of depression?

Toby denies it of course. You suspect he has never taken responsibility for anything but success in his life, he even comes out blame free as the trial falls apart in a dramatic climax.

We are left in a sort of limbo. Connie and Tristan have a relationship, a love, of sorts, Toby and Dr James have a fragile bond, or at least something between them, but both couples find themselves miles away from what anyone wanted or even envisaged. Tristan is lost in now, Lorna is lost in the past, Connie and Toby . . . perhaps it's just past sins have to be paid for.

The mind is a strange place, an unexplored largely undiscovered world, no matter what doctors might tell us, and this is a play which plays with ours, with an end, fittingly, which is sad, it might even be seen as depressing.

Director Dan Beaton and assistant Esther Roden keep a firm hand on the emotions coursing through the play on the stark, white set they have created. There is a nice touch as we have a moving brain scan projected on back and front walls as dopamine levels are discussed. A mention too for Tal Bainbridge and Dan Beaton's imaginative and clinical lighting.

We are not an audience either, we are observers, we even have badges to prove it. As a play The Effect is well constructed, and every so often throws in a comment, or question that jogs the mind into life (just don’t ask why or how).

In essence it is the sort of thoughtful, challenging play studios were created to showcase and it is brilliantly executed with four actors all compelling and believable in their roles, never missing a beat.

There is cocky Toby; trying to hold it together Lorna; mad as a hatter Tristan; and timid trying to find herself Connie, all in an unreal environment, an environment designed to mess with the brain, so best to keep your thoughts to yourself.

It might not be conventional theatre, but it is hard to find fault with the result. It was cast in 2019 and more than two years of Covid and lockdowns later is finally on stage. To 14-05-22.

Roger Clarke


Note: The play contains some bad language and sexual references.  

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