The first production from Pangdemonium's Season of Love this year, The Effect is a romantic "dramady" set within the walls of a mental health facility. Literally — two large walls in the background of the futuristic set mimic the sterile stillness of a hospital. From the get-go, we're slowly introduced to two of the leads, Connie (Nikki Muller) and Tristan (Linden Furnell), who fuss about their respective beds before the play formally begins. Written by British playwright Lucy Prebble, The Effect tells the story of two drug trial volunteers who find themselves the guinea pigs of an antidepressant study by Doctors Toby and Lorna, played by Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua respectively.
The story builds like a slow dance with Connie and Tristan thrown in the throes of a promising courtship, each with baggage of their own. While both are equally restive, the attached Connie seems the more skittish of the two, with Muller's guarded, defensive nature playing off Furnell's goofy, free-spirited antics. Their early banter is brief — only when they bump into each other — with a few quips setting off our laugh lines. Interactions between the doctors are abrupt and wrought with hesitance. At first you struggle to understand the dynamics of their professional relationship, but Pang and Tan's subtle nuances reveal a shared personal history — though little is known until the second half.
The show really picks up its pace a half hour in. The romantic leads take us through their dopamine-fuelled effects while the LED display above the walls depict heart rate monitors and their antidepressant dosage. Predictably, the volunteers fall head over heels, but unlike any other romance, they're just as clueless as you are as to whether their emotions are authentic or chemically-enhanced.
By the interval, the audience will no doubt be reflecting internally on their own romantic relationships, both path and present. The play asks big questions: Have you ever really been in love, or was it all just a cocktail of chemical reactions? Are you really in control of your emotions? It's a quiet play — most moments of passion and emotion, you'll find, are internalised within the characters, and within the audience themselves as they seek their own answers.
Romantic love aside, The Effect's underlying heartbeat thumps to the tune of mental health. Unfolding like a ticking time bomb, the subject matter of depression hangs uncertainly in the air, present in the bitter taste of the mouths of the doctors. We're talked through the struggle of their own ethics and bias, which question the legitimacy of current medical solutions, and whether a cure even exists — or are mental health patients just getting by? Tan is especially compelling in her struggle, giving depression a physicality and strength to the otherwise invisible disease.
The play ends on a good note — that of hope. You'll come out of it learning a little more about mental health and depression in particular — as well as how much of a service your brain really does to your emotions. As for the age-old question of whether love is chemical or emotional, it's an answer Lucy Prebble and Pangdemonium won't give — just as well, as you should work on finding that out for yourself.
The Effect is running till 13 March at the Victoria Theatre. For tickets, click here.