In Lucy Prebble’s enigmatic play The Effect, restaged at The National Theatre a decade after its premiere, the very essence of emotion and its limits are dissected within the confines of a pharmaceutical trial.
From the outset, it’s clear that this production is not just a theatrical outing but a razor-sharp discussion of human psychology, love, and ethics that arise when science intertwines with emotion.
Set against the backdrop of a double-blind clinical trial for a novel antidepressant, The Effect introduces us to Tristan and Connie, the unsuspecting subjects who soon find their lives intertwined amidst the influence of the trial drug.
The duo’s journey crosses the spectrum of love, raising deep questions about the authenticity of their emotions—genuine feelings or mere biochemical reactions.
From the outset, Prebble’s tale captivates with a complex balance of wit and contemplation.
“Their chemistry is palpable throughout, drawing the audience into a realm where emotion and chemistry intertwine in a dance of uncertainty”
The dialogue crackles with a mixture of sharpness and humour. The flickers of flirtation between Tristan and Connie are pure rom-com ‘meet cute’ meets ‘street cute’. It’s here that Prebble has the most fun, as she effortlessly switches gears between memorable quips and explorations of the intricacies of human connection in the context of scientific experimentation.
And with Prebble’s words at their disposal, the performances from the quarter of actors in this production are like a quadruple shot of dopamine.
Paapa Essiedu lends undeniable charm and charisma to Tristan, again proving that he is one of the UK’s most exciting and captivating actors. His moments of warmth are measured with canny movements and a constant sense of mischief and menace. Meanwhile, Taylor Russell portrays Connie with remarkable introspection, mirroring her character’s inward nature. Her delivery is charged with humour and heart, which perfectly complements her co-star.
Their chemistry is palpable throughout, drawing the audience into a realm where emotion and chemistry intertwine in a dance of uncertainty.
In contrast, Michele Austin and Kobna-Holdbrook Smith inhabit their roles as the doctors leading the experiment with intoxicating humanity. They generate some of the biggest laughs and applause with their delivery of lines that speak to bias, race, class, and marriage. At times, their verbal jousting is akin to watching your parents flirt after they’ve had a couple of cocktails—slightly awkward and amusing, but impossible to look away.
This revival, directed by Jamie Lloyd, exudes style, locking you into its aura from the outset. Soutra Gilmour’s design plays with perception, transforming the Lyttelton Auditorium into a visually striking space with an LED catwalk slicing through the audience, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Black Mirror episode. As a modern canvas for the actors to explore the blurred lines between emotion and science, it feels contemporary and perfectly reinforces the timeless potential of the play. Meanwhile, Michael Asante’s score and George Dennis’ sound design are potent, intimidating, and propulsive enough for an unforgiving Berlin nightclub.
Some have questioned the play’s pacing and moments of flashiness, but I found no issue with either. Lloyd’s vision is ambitious and arresting enough to attract the diverse audiences that theatre needs and this production deserves.
“Lloyd’s vision is ambitious and arresting enough to attract the diverse audiences that theatre needs and this production deserves”
The visual spectacle and a brain in a bucket (you have to see it for yourself) provide thought-provoking metaphors, and I never felt like the production lost sight of the thematic exploration of ethics in medicine and love.
As Prebble’s script delves into the ethical dimensions of consent, the responsibilities of researchers, and the intricate interplay between chemicals and authentic feelings, you can feel the echoes of the discourse around contemporary scientific and moral issues.
Despite originally opening a decade ago, The Effect still serves as a mirror to society’s evolving perspective on the boundaries of science and emotion and a beautiful cautionary tale reminding us of the pitfalls of falling hopelessly or helpfully in love.