[May induce euphoria and drowsiness]
Creative Producer Jason Hodzelmans and Artistic Director Benjamin Henson have created a very particular brand with theatre company Fractious Tash. They’ve been called ‘innovative’, ‘imaginative’, and ‘outstanding’ – all theatrical buzzwords, but ones that are nonetheless justified. You recognise a Henson production, not because of anything expected, but because of his innate ability to create truly spectacular worlds in which his productions exist. Having focussed previously on devised works and reimaginings of classics, The Effect, by British playwright Lucy Prebble, marks the company’s first attempt at an ‘established’ contemporary play.
While Prebble’s script asks the psychophysiological question of what makes us who we are and consequently what we want, the “diverse” (according to the programme) cast of white actors are also tasked with portraying the dynamics of relationships. Tristan and Connie, played by Daniel Watterson and Jessie Lawrence respectively, are drug trial patients who, while ingesting increasing doses of an anti-depressant, find themselves falling in love. Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Lorna James, played by a show-stealing Sheena Irving, follows their progress with growing concern, while pharmaceutical developer Dr. Toby (Will Wallace) dismisses her both intellectually and emotionally.
The play raises questions about love and mental health (although the former could arguably be considered part of the latter), but there is a somewhat passive ambiguity to their extent. And while a playwright should not attempt to answer their own questions, the play doesn’t allow Henson or his cast the opportunity to delve into them with any theatrically resounding results. The main obstacle to this is that there is so little chemistry between Lawrence and Watterson, you couldn’t get a spark from a flint if you rubbed it between them. Lawrence pitches her performance with such instant intensity that she leaves herself nowhere to go. Any emotional character journey is sacrificed for the sake of portraying the character’s over-intellectualisation. Where Lawrence’s Connie is all talk, Watterson’s Tristan is all action. As the latter, Watterson is provided with a role that allows for grand gestures, both in physical and internal actions. On their own these actions are entertaining to watch (and Watterson embraces them fully), but without the necessary connection between the two actors, both become lost in a performative gulf inconsistent with the rest of the play.
It’s been some time since Wallace tread the boards – and it shows. His lack of confidence has him racing through the moments between words with no thought process to justify his next line, which results in cringe-inducing forced emotions, and an internal and literally physical misbalance. Shifting from leg to leg, Wallace plays up the Lothario and gesticulates with such abandon one would be forgiven for thinking he had stumbled on stage from the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. Ironically, or perhaps not, the clinical psychiatrist character (who strives to focus on their intellectual control the most) is the one who provides the pathos, thanks to a heart-breaking portrayal by Irving. Irving listens with every inch of her body, reacting to every word spoken in the subtlest of ways. She’s also tremendously funny – her deadpan delivery eliciting most of the laughs. Most importantly, she gives some credibility to an otherwise weak ending by investing in it.
Henson and Hodzelmans’ design, in conjunction with designers Rachel Marlow and Brad Gledhill, is sleek and sexy, but perhaps too sterile, especially when a minor second act change to the set creates a possibility that could have been incorporated earlier and is forgotten about all too quickly, although Henson ensures the cast’s physical dynamism is constantly alive without ever seeming forced. Movement direction by Lara Liew is interesting enough, but adds little to the show, whereas sound design by Te Aihe Butler and Robin Kelly is the most apt sensory reflection of the text.
The decision to present this play as part of the 2017 Matchbox season from Q Theatre’s perspective is that “it showcases a company using their expertise to keep it simple.” Unfortunately, this simplicity has also diluted the savagery of Henson’s style of direction. I don’t doubt Fractious Tash is able to present great work without relying on bells and whistles, but this particular combination of script and casting (with the exception of Irving) simply does not synthesise. The Effect raises interesting, if not problematic, questions, but without a thorough enough investigation of them, a post-show reflection of Fractious Tash’s production feels more like a placebo than the real thing.
The Effect plays until 12 August. Details see Q.