The Effect at the Project review: the unmasking of a chemical romance

Two volunteers on a drugs trial begin to have some strange attractions in Lucy Prebble’s love-sceptical play

The Effect ★★★
Project Arts Centre

For those prone to over-analyse, there are sly pleasures hiding within the chemical under trial in Lucy Prebble's 2012 play, The Effect. An antidepressant known as Agent RLU37 stimulates many of the responses we associate with the first flush of passion – intense emotions, increased sex drive, diminished appetite and sleepless nights.

That makes Connie and Tristan, two young subjects experiencing a charged mutual attraction, begin to question their feelings, while also threatening the experiment. Is this the real thing? Or, with a little unscrambling of the letters and numerals of agent RUL37, is LURVE actually the drug?

Where the potions of A Midsummer Night's Dream once made human desire seem radically fickle, Prebble's play sees love as less trustworthy, more tortured, a feeling that ought to be monitored. "Everything we do is just about what's pumping round us," reasons Connie, a stubborn realist, kept peppy in Siobhán Cullen's personable performance, while Donal Gallery's impetuous Tristan is more inclined to go with his gut.


Director Ronan Phelan has found frisson in putting people under observation before, and here his vision of human will shaped by a clinical trial follows a familiar dystopian model. Sarah Bacon’s costumes and set – where neutral grey sweats resemble prison uniforms within a space enclosed by the audience and watched over by mercilessly tracking screens – elevate a sense of Orwellian surveillance; just as the flicker of private longing within Adam Gibney’s video design hints at resistance.


Their invigilator, Dr James, is a more complicated human presence, though, who, in Ali White’s nicely guarded performance, suggests a psychiatrist who is herself partly under ice. “Is there no mystery for you?” an exasperated Tristan asks Connie, just as Dr James, prone to depression but wary of medication, is later admonished for “clinging to the mystery” by her employer (and former lover), Ronan Leahy’s silky Dr Sealey (whom the production treats, in one near dreamlike moment, like a psychiatric Frankenstein).

This can make the play seem like a pendulum swing between pessimists and optimists – those who would rather be right than happy, and those who see only what they want to see.

But the dispute is also generational, a tale of youth and experience: “You don’t know what you feel,” reprimands Dr James at one point, sounding part scientist, part disapproving parent.

For similar reasons, perhaps, Cullen and Gallery find it hard to generate the onstage chemistry we are asked to monitor, as the play (or the chemical) pushes them aggressively through escalating stages of melodrama. More quietly, and affectingly, the bruised history between ex-lovers is summoned sometimes with just a subtle glance.

Relationships may flourish under less constant observation, and the play says as much when it finally delivers its protagonists somewhere unanticipated, far past the stages of romance to somewhere less heated, perhaps more real. All effects eventually wear off, Prebble seems to say, whether joyful or painful, but with a hard-won reconciliation of reason and feeling, we can make our better conditions endure.

  • Until April 1st
Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture