Romancing the brain

(From far left) Adrian Pang, Linden Furnell, Nikki Muller and Tan Kheng Hua star in Pangdemonium's The Effect.
(From far left) Adrian Pang, Linden Furnell, Nikki Muller and Tan Kheng Hua star in Pangdemonium's The Effect.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

The Effect, which studies how love is connected to brain chemicals, is another top-notch Pangdemonium production

REVIEW / THEATRE

THE EFFECT

Pangdemonium

Victoria Theatre/ Last Saturday

A side-effect of watching The Effect is realising that the brain is the most romantic organ of all. The red-blooded heart only pumps liquid around the body. It is the grey matter in the skull that generates neurochemicals capable of setting the body afire with desire, cold with anxiety or dark with depression.

British playwright Lucy Prebble's bitingly funny, brilliantly research- ed play only appears to be a clinical analysis of the brain chemistry behind love, sadness and other feelings. It is actually a tender flirtation with sex, drugs and violence. It is a compassionate argument for accepting the mentally ill.

  • BOOK IT / THE EFFECT

  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre

    WHEN: Till March 13, 8pm (Tuesday to Friday), 3 & 8pm (Saturday), 3pm (Sunday) & 8pm (March 13)

    ADMISSION: $40 to $65 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

If love results in diminished judgment, who would honestly want to be judged as sane?

In a clinical trial for a new antidepressant, two distinctly different volunteers - Linden Furnell as the unruly Tristan and Nikki Muller as the cautious Connie - are increasingly attracted to each other as their drug dosage increases.

Of the two doctors monitoring the trial, one is ecstatic (Adrian Pang as Dr Toby Sealey), the other is concerned (Tan Kheng Hua as Dr Lorna James). Feel-good dopamine produced in the brain reduces depression and is also produced during courtship, so for Dr Sealey, the love effect means a successful trial.

Dr James does not believe feelings can be reduced to chemical components. She also thinks doing so is unscientific and unethical. Meanwhile, the trial continues to raise the heartbeats of the patients, sparking even graver concerns about the volunteers' health.

The Effect continues Pangdemonium's long streak of top- notch productions. Furnell and Muller bring convincing nervous energy to their roles, Pang is deliciously restrained in his part as a financially savvy researcher hiding a chequered romantic past.

But perhaps the brightest in this complement of stars is Tan Kheng Hua, in her second time exploring pills and the mind on stage, after Saga Seed Theatre's The Shape Of A Bird earlier this year. Initially a buttoned-up scientist, her character loosens to show the tragic need for this self-control. Her character steals the show with a display of emotion even more naked than the clothes-shedding sex scenes.

Wai Yin Kwok's set is a high-tech delight, a sterile cage with glass panels that open to let much-needed air into tight situations - appropriate mood lighting by James Tan, Genevieve Pek's projections and Guo Ningru's sound design recreate MRI scans and emphasise the sci-fi feel of the set, with continually beeping heartbeats reminding the audience that the core of the story is the gloriously unpredictable nature of humanity.

If love can be chemically induced, does it matter if the lovers will do the dry-cleaning anyway? (This pun is only obvious after watching the play.) The point The Effect makes is that there is a difference between infatuation and love. The former can be kindled by volatile chemicals made to react under controlled situations, but love requires steady hard work unfazed by personal catastrophe.

The structure of the play mirrors this idea. The first act is the ecstasy of a still naive romance, the second a considered but passionate exploration of the agony that goes hand in hand with a maturing relationship.

"I've built part of my brain around you," goes one of the most unforgettably romantic lines in the play.

Appropriately, when the inevitable heartbreak occurs, it is not the organ in the centre of the chest that is torn apart on stage while the audience cringes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Romancing the brain'. Print Edition | Subscribe