The Effect | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft – Mark Leonard Winter and Anna McGahan. Cover – Mark Leonard Winter and Angie Milliken. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti

How can you tell if you're in love if you're drugged? This is the question at the heart of Lucy Prebble's meaty play The Effect, which follows Tristan (Mark Leonard Winter) and Connie (Anna McGahan), two young people who meet, flirt, and maybe fall in love (or maybe not) while participating in a drug trial. As their relationship grows, they struggle to know whether their feelings for one another are real, or just the effect of the drug (an antidepressant) on their susceptible minds. The premise is fascinating, and in parts, so too is the execution. But this is not an especially consistent production, and by the time the second half rolls around, it begins to drag.

This is largely, although not wholly, due to the introduction of a subplot revolving around the two doctors – Lorna (Angie Milliken), who is administering the trial, and Toby (Eugene Gilfedder), who is her supervisor. Lorna suffers depression and does not believe in medicating it, which leads to conflict with Toby, who believes it is an illness and thus can be treated. This kind of feels like a different play glued on to this one, with its relationship to the A-plot only tangential. One scene in particular, where they argue over the merits of medication, is a kind of didactic battle which doesn’t do much to serve story development. While Milliken and Gilfedder do a good job in their respective roles, I'm not sure the play would have suffered from this subplot’s excision.

If the show overall had been about an hour shorter – maybe 90 minutes, no interval – I think it might have been a very fine show indeed, taut and scintillating. As it is, it has flashes of brilliance, but I wanted more from it. There could have been more complexity to the relationship between Tristan and Connie, who fall in love very quickly. (Is this drug induced? Perhaps, perhaps not. The show is at its strongest when dealing with this question.) He is quickly set up as the emotional, impulsive one, and she as the rational, cautious one, her backstory explained a little, his not much. There's not anything technically wrong with their characterisation, but I would have liked more nuance. As it was, I didn't particularly feel their magnetic pull to each other (which is crucial to the love story). This was not aided by the fact that Winter and McGahan, while fine actors in their own right, don't have a great deal of chemistry.

I liked the show's picaresque style, which was smoothly and effectively realised on the Wharf 1 stage. The minimalist set not only effectively set the scene, but facilitated the play’s episodic nature. Director Sarah Goodes and designer Renee Mulder have realised Prebble’s script very stylishly. I was not a fan, however, of the ending, which I found kind of telenovela-esque. I won't spoil it here, but it wouldn't have been out of place in a soap opera.

This is an engaging play, with a really interesting question about the nature of love and how and why we experience it at its core. If the focus on this question had been sharper, The Effect might have been excellent. As it is, it doesn't progress beyond good.

Sydney Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company present
by Lucy Prebble

Director Sarah Goodes

Venue: Wharf 1 | Pier 4/5 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 10 July – 16 August 2014
Tickets: $50 – $99 (fees apply)
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 |

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