Is it love or purely chemical? The Effect questions the nature of attraction through Lucy Prebble’s powerful story, where two young lovers find themselves tied together in an impossible situation – a drug trial. Throughout the 100 minute “sprint” of a show, the four actors on stage hold the audience hostage through the twists and turns of their story. The show is raw, emotional, exciting and incredibly heart wrenching.
The Effect, written by English playwright Lucy Prebble, first premiered in 2012 at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre; initially directed by Rupert Goold, starring Billie Piper and Jojo O’Neill, the production received glowing reviews. Now directed by Jamie Lloyd, this revival is invigorating; starring Paapa Esseidu (playing flirtatious live wire Tristan) and Taylor Russell (playing gentle precise Connie). The actors chemistry together undeniably transfixes the audience, yet they are not without support from the stunning design which brings the entire performance together.
Two volunteers at a pharmaceutical trial, Connie and Tristan, begin exhibiting signs of attraction shortly after starting a new experimental antidepressant. As emotions intensify between the pair, Dr Toby questions if love or mere chemistry is at play. When the ruthless Dr. Lorna shields the drug’s concerning side effects to preserve its launch, a web of secrecy and danger emerges threatening the lives of all involved.
Rupert Goold’s direction expertly threads the psychological needle of Prebble’s script, embracing ambiguity while cultivating scorching dramatic tension. Shadowy lighting and claustrophobic interiors by Ben Stones and Tom Scutt externalize the characters’ fraying mental states. Ethereal compositions from Imogen Heap underscore the production’s dreamlike incertitude. Against the sleek clinical backdrop, intimate moments blossom and then fracture, keeping the audience guessing until the final blackout.
Billie Piper mesmerizes the brash yet vulnerable Connie, eliciting empathy and intrigue in equal measure. Piper masters the physical and emotional extremities of Connie’s medication-induced mania with captivating specificity. As Tristan, Jonjo O’Neill provides an endearing counterbalance with puppyish earnestness shielding haunted depths. Enyi Okoronkwo generates sympathy as the conflicted Dr. Toby, while Kaya Curran chills as the steely Dr. Lorna willing to bury ugly truths. The four leads form a potent ensemble, amplifying the script’s humour and heartbreak.
Set and Costume Design
Designed by Tom Scutt, the set evokes the sanitized interior of a pharmaceutical office and lab. However, mirrored panels distort perceptions and glass walls hint at obscured truths. Hospital greens and cool blues reinforce the clinical detachment, with lighting by Ben Stones accentuating the space’s sterility.
In contrast, Lucy Prebble’s costume design injects the characters with personality. Connie’s casual dresses and Tristan’s jeans and hoodies externalize their youth and idealism. Meanwhile, the doctors’ lab coats represent scientific discipline and authority. As mysteries deepen, so too do the divisions between the subjects and their observers.
Music and Sound
Composer Imogen Heap provides an evocative, synth-driven score using looping and effects-laden vocals. The ethereal compositions echo the hazy realities experienced under medication. As emotions intensify between Connie and Tristan, Heap’s music swells with bittersweet romanticism. Yet jagged electronic sounds puncture these reveries, underscoring the situation’s artificiality.
Meanwhile, subtle sound design by Tom Gibbons, such as muffled intercom announcements, grounds the play in the clinical setting. The creak of a leather sofa or the pouring of wine links physical spaces with the intimate drama unfolding within. These auditory details work symbiotically with Scutt’s set design to construct a believable world.
Cultural and Historical Context
Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect in response to alarming statistics about the overprescription of antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs. Despite the play’s fictionalized plot, its exploration of medical ethics remains deeply relevant as mental health medication proliferates globally. With antidepressant use surging, debate continues regarding proper dosages, potential long-term effects, and the true efficacy of certain drugs.
By humanizing this issue through richly defined characters, Prebble provokes empathy rather than backlash. Flawed yet well-meaning figures like Dr. Toby embody the quandaries doctors face balancing protocols, research demands, and most importantly, their duty of care. Within its intimate psychodrama, The Effect exposes knotty complexities in need of broader public discourse.
The Effect received enthusiastic praise for Billie Piper’s magnetic performance, with The Evening Standard declaring her “simply sensational” and The Guardian “on career-best form.” While some found the play intellectually impenetrable, most critics lauded Lucy Prebble’s challenging script and the visceral theatrical experience.
Positive word of mouth contributed to robust ticket sales, especially among young theatregoers drawn by Piper’s star power. While the clinical setting left some cold, The Effect undeniably ignited lively post-show debates, cementing its relevance during an era of passionate social discourse.
Alongside Piper’s knockout turn, critics singled out Jonjo O’Neill’s endearing work as Piper’s besotted foil. Goold’s tense direction and the design team’s ominous atmospherics also won acclaim for mirroring the play’s psychological fragility. While The Telegraph felt Prebble’s two-hour drama outstayed its welcome, most appreciated her willingness to leave the play’s central questions unresolved.
Rather than supplying glib answers, The Effect instead provokes vital discussions about medical uncertainty. Though arguably overstuffed, this production shows Prebble’s talent for blending cerebral concepts with emotional intimacy. Buoyed by the first-rate cast, The Effect earned its cheers for boasting both brains and heart.
Anchored by stellar lead performances, The National Theatre’s production of The Effect stimulates and unsettles in equal measure. Lucy Prebble’s probing drama leavens cerebral inquiry with compassion. Rupert Goold helms a sleek, tension-filled staging that enthrals without extremes. While the play resists tidy conclusions, its lingering impact is undeniable. The Effect ultimately succeeds in humanizing ethical dilemmas surrounding psychiatry through vibrant characters caught at scientific crossroads. Rather than passing judgment, Prebble’s nuanced play instead compels us to listen and learn as we navigate medicine’s hazy realities.