James Sharpe reviews Lucy Prebble’s latest play, The Effect.
Lucy Prebble struck a chord in 2009 with Enron, the play that exposed a prescient example of corporate greed and incompetence in the wake of the financial crisis. In her first major play since then, Prebble now turns her eye to the pharmaceutical industry and its questionable ethos in the fight to get customers. It is certainly not as timely as Enron – but then again when would it be ‘timely’? – and so we approach Prebble’s work this time without the preconceived indignation with which Enron was received. It makes the audience harder to win round to a particular perspective on the relationship between human beings, their ailments (which can include overwhelming emotions like love), and the industry that supplies the drugs while at the same time creating the maladies for which these drugs are the cure.
In Enron, Prebble introduced a modicum of complexity by stressing the wonders and benefits of the capitalist system in providing one and all with a standard of living unimaginable only a few decades (even years) ago. Nevertheless, the thrust of her piece was how the so-called Masters of the Universe could stomp all over the little people to realise their own success. To use the economic parlance: all prosperity is simply a benign externality.
In The Effect similar themes emerge. As Toby, a senior manager at the pharmaceutical company Raushen, puts it, the externality of his activity (selling drugs) is people get better. Indeed they do, but as Lorna, the doctor in charge of the drugs trial at the heart of the play, replies, this is only if they are sick in the first place. Just as capitalism thrives on selling us things we otherwise would not want, pharmaceuticals wants us to be cured of ailments we do not necessarily have. Or so Prebble suggests anyway.
Her thesis is convincing, and her argument is presented in two ways by two couples shown in parallel. First we have Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill) and Connie (Billie Piper), the drug trial guinea pigs who fall in love. But is it because of the drugs? Her answer is, it doesn’t matter. So many factors contribute to our falling in love one way or the other – and our body’s natural drugs are no small contribution – that an artificial drug is just as qualitatively valid. It makes no difference to the reality of the love that one feels.
The second story is Lorna (Anastasia Hille) and Toby (Tom Goodman-Hill), the doctors employed by Raushen and former husband wife. Lorna suffers from depression and refuses to medicate. Her argument is that she is not abnormal for being depressed; depression is fundamental to who she is and how she conceives the world. Her without depression would be a different ‘her’. She would not necessarily be qualitatively different, but she would be different. It’s a powerful idea implying that medication (of mental disorders like depression at least) can be a suppression of self just as much a relief from pain.
This review has not been overly concerned with the production itself. It has got some rave reviews which I’m not entirely sure are justified. For example, an airport lounge for a set is hardly a work of genius. But it is a play that asks a moral question and attempts to posit an answer. They are questions that many in the audience are sure to have pondered before. Like all good ideas though, they become more immediate and engaging when removed from pure thought and turned into something which engages our emotions. If entertainment is art without insight or challenge then The Effect is definitely not just entertainment, and a couple of hours spent with it will be repaid in the thought it inspires afterwards whether in agreement or not. I can think of no better recommendation than that.