Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Radio review: The Effect

Remember those old BBC sound effect albums? I don't recall there being a "hand job" effect on them but I guess Auntie really does have something for every occasion.

Although I listen to a fair bit of half-hour radio comedy I don't often get round to any full-length drama, but Lucy Prebble's 2012 play The Effect was one of my top shows of that year, and one that I still remember vividly; add a top voice cast for Abigail le Fleming's Radio 3 production and I couldn't resist revisiting it. Lorna (Christine Entwisle) is the doctor in charge of the intensive medical trial of a new antidepressant; she's suffered from depression herself, and is skeptical about the use of drugs to treat it, so she's concerned about the reaction two of the test subjects are having: Connie (Pirate Jessie Buckley) and Tristan (Damien Molony) appear to have fallen very quickly in love with each other. If the development is worrying for the medical team, it's even more so for the pair themselves, their emotions - particularly Connie's - bouncing between elation at a new love, and the horror that one of the strongest things they've ever felt might just be a side-effect.

The play itself is a similar emotional rollercoaster, its light and easy comedy putting a smile on your face, making you feel for the central couple before it gives you a gut-punch of emotion. Buckley and Molony make you root for their contrasting characters, Connie with her more measured, cautious approach and Tristan with his attitude of embracing everything that comes at him. But the secondary couple also get their due in this audio version, Lorna reconnecting with her ex Toby (Samuel West,) who now works for the pharmaceutical company and requested her for this job. West is an actor with an air of detachment that comes across here too, again providing a contrast with the warmth and concern Entiwsle puts into her character, but over the course of the play his humanity shows through gradually. Inevitably it's hard to care quite as much about Lorna and Toby as you do about Connie and Tristan, but they certainly don't feel like an afterthought.

In an introduction to this radio production Prebble, who now works mainly in TV, says she hasn't written for the stage since The Effect, and casually drops the bomb that she isn't sure she ever will again; partly because she loves this play so much she doesn't think she can ever match it. That would be a shame, but I can't blame her for feeling that way because even without the visuals of the original production this comes across as something special. It's certainly an interesting and original look at the mind, emotion and depression, but for me despite the cynicism expressed by some of the characters, what makes The Effect stand out is how at heart it's a very genuine, heartfelt love story.

The Effect by Lucy Prebble is available on the BBC Radio app until the 27th of February.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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