We must begin with a sizeable disclaimer: I have loved Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect since it opened at the National Theatre in 2012. While it was certainly the darling of the middle class intellectuals who first praised the effortless moulding of The Big Philosophical Issues Of Our Times into intimate, personal moments, the team behind Ophir Productions have rightly spotted that it is even better suited to Oxford student audiences. We may be among the handful of people who are sufficiently pretentious to want to discuss biological determinism at length over late night Coco Pops. For us, the philosophical and scientific are both uniquely personal and the locus of The Effect – a clinical trial of a new anti-depressant – will doubtlessly resonate with every person here. I was, in equal parts, delighted someone was putting it on and terrified the piece would be savaged.
I needn’t have worried. In order to even begin unpacking the ideological dilemmas with which The Effect confronts us, it is imperative for the audience to buy that two participants in the drug trial fall in utterly love in highly improbable circumstances. The fiery chemistry forged between Connie (Ellie Lowenthal) and Tristan (Calam Lynch) fizzed and bubbled onstage, the intense throes of love feeling every inch as genuine as the flirtatious banter preceding it. Chemistry is the appropriate word, too – the audience grapple, like the doctors in the play, with the question of whether we can, or indeed should, recognise our feelings as anything other than a myriad of complex biological processes. We feel the same overwhelming rush of dopamine as the lovers before us as a result of the two actors’ effortlessly natural movements and physical presence, especially during the poignant sexual scenes. Stylised, repeated sequences featured inventively, tuning up the tension explosively released at the climax of the play. The creative separation of two distinct physical spaces was interesting, reflecting two parallel but inseparable narratives, though the interference of a railing intruded somewhat on the otherwise enormously affecting performance of Sarah Mathews as Dr James (the psychiatrist conducting the trial). To divulge the raw face of depression honestly is no mean feat (particularly to an audience who are all too familiar with it), and Mathews is to be commended on her touching portrayal of these elements. Director Freya Judd has taken a play – a play that has been produced professionally, read, dissected and loved – and rendered it with sensitivity for an audience who desperately care about the conclusions it draws. The production never once fell prey to the temptation to merely stage intellectual discussion, going beyond this and making us truly feel for the characters implicated. It can therefore be forgiven for a handful of line wobbles and a slightly stilted opening. Facebook Event Tickets, £7/£9