It’s not hard to see why so many of Australia’s major theatre companies have snapped up Lucy Prebble’s The Effect following it’s 2012 debut at London’s National Theatre. The ideas explored here regarding neuroscience, clinical depression and the effects of medically administered drugs are both fresh and entirely intriguing. But while the British playwright certainly has some interesting things to say about these subjects, in the end, this production at least, has far fewer points to make. 

The action is set around a four week, live-in clinical drug trial being administered by psychiatrist, Dr Lorna James (Sigrid Thornton), under the tense supervision of Dr Toby Sealey (William McInnes). The drug, on trial as an anti-depressant, raises dopamine levels in the brain with an objective of improved motivation and happiness in the subject, and a likely effect of increased state of arousal. So naturally when two of the trial’s guinea pigs, Connie and Tristan (Zahra Newman and Nathaniel Dean), start to find themselves becoming increasingly attracted to one another, it’s hard to tell if this is a natural chemistry or one medically enhanced.

Escaping the watchful eye of Lorna, the pair begins an illicit friendship that escalates in intensity with each increased dosage of the drug. But are they in love? As a psychology student, Connie inquisitively prods Lorna for information on the trial and upon learning the details, becomes doubtful of her feelings for the charming but rough Tristan. However there is a control subject in the group taking placebos, so could it be one of them?

Director Leticia Caceres enforces a break-neck pace on the play’s opening scenes which does cause somewhat of a melodramatic effect overall, but ensures we’re engaged in the action immediately. Most fascinating of the issues examined by Prebble are those articulated through pacey interchanges between the pair of doctors, as we learn that Thornton’s Lorna suffers depression herself, and they debate the value of medicating the brain against the condition. Will scientists of the future find the theory of a chemical imbalance in the brain as backward a hypothesis as today’s doctors feel about history’s ‘four humours’? Do the clinically depressed simply have a more accurate view of the world? Do anti-depressants have any real long-term effect or are even the short-term effects spurious? Certainly it seems Prebble’s opinion leans to the latter as Connie and Tristan’s relationship shows to have more potency than the drugs they’re taking.

But once these absorbing concepts are played out by the middle of the second act, the story is left ambling it’s way to an impotent conclusion. One can’t help feeling that Caceres has missed a trick in the script, or perhaps it’s simply that Thornton is struggling to get the emotion across the expanse of the theatre, because it seems Lorna could be seen as a classically tragic character, unable to affect her own condition, despite being perfectly placed to do the most about it. Yet, as things stand, she comes across like the victim of circumstance rather than of her own stubbornness.

Andrew Bailey’s intelligent set design takes what could be a black box production and creates innumerable locations amongst a serious of cool, clinical wardrooms. This is a welcome relief against the fear that the MTC were once again placing a script designed for an intimate space onto its cavernous Sumner Theatre stage. Projected videos from Chris More, a futuristic soundtrack from THE SWEATS and sharply crafted lighting by Damien Cooper further add refinement to this slick production. There is a bit of a sore thumb sticking out in Kate Davis’ bizarre costume choices for Connie. Consistently surgical green, shapeless daywear does not seem befitting of a psychology student from the right side of town.

But perhaps that’s because Newman, as charming as she is, doesn’t really fit the profile. Connie is written to be the uptown girl to Tristan’s boy from the wrong side of the tracks, yet she comes across as an emotionally naïve schoolgirl, however responsible she may be. On the other hand Dean feels made to play the role of Tristan, all full of unselfconscious larrikinism and prone to aggression when the stakes get too high. Despite the disconnect on Newman’s side, together the pair do create a believable partnership.

McInnes and Thornton also have a natural rapport on stage and gleefully bat the script’s intelligent one-liners back and forth at one another. McInnes’ Toby barely makes an impact on the play however, leaving the heavy lifting to Thornton, who is never less than engaging. But there is nonetheless something missing from this production and it seems to be lost somewhere between Thornton, Caceres and Prebble.

Reliable performances and tidy direction aren’t enough, nor are a clutch of lovely observations on the nature of love and of the human brain, to give this production the medicine it needs the most. A defined point of view.