'The Effect' review — you can't help falling in love with this knockout drama

Read our four-star review of The Effect, by Lucy Prebble, now in performances at the National Theatre to 7 October.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“Are you happy?” Those words echo around The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s head-scratching, heart-wrenching play. In Jamie Lloyd’s meticulous revival, this 2012 piece – Prebble’s impressive follow-up to Enron, and which premiered here at the National starring Billie Piper – proves startlingly prescient about some of the biggest debates of the age. It’s also just a knockout human drama.

The potent set-up is a trial for an experimental antidepressant drug designed to boost dopamine levels. Two volunteers – Hackney charmer Tristran, who is doing the trial to earn travelling money, and analytical Canadian student Connie – meet and fall for one another. But is this chemical alchemy love or the drug?

Their main observer is psychiatrist Dr Lorna James, who was hired by her ex, Dr Toby Sealey. He has a vested commercial interest in the trial’s results, and also, it transpires, a particular reason for wanting her involvement – though he maintains more of a clinical detachment. That opens up a whole other set of questions about medical ethics and personal prejudice.

But we, the audience, are implicated too. We begin to observe these characters like scientific subjects, and we bring our own biases. The reconfiguration of the Lyttelton in traverse seating enhances that intense feeling of being both watched and watchers. Prebble also teasingly manipulates us, holding back key pieces of information to upend our reactions and beliefs.

The script is overly schematic, and there are some glaring plot contrivances. Yet, as you’d expect from one of the linchpins of the Succession writing team, Prebble skilfully balances big ideas with emotion, and pathos with wit. There are some firecracker one-liners, especially from the deadpan Lorna, each one relished by a blistering Michele Austin.

But then each of the quartet is phenomenal, as they need to be in this sensitively balanced piece. We have to believe that cautious Connie’s world is transformed by Tristan, and you absolutely do in Taylor Russell’s beautifully calibrated performance (a spellbinding stage debut) – her defences abandoned as she embraces this rare loss of control.

Equally, I’d defy anyone not to fall for Paapa Essiedu’s Tristan. He’s a restless ball of charisma, flirtatious humour papering over the vulnerable cracks, and almost dangerously unguarded. That can be endearing, euphoric, alarming, and devastating. It’s a towering turn from Essiedu.

Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith are another strong pair, sparring over whether Toby has created “the Viagra of the heart” or, essentially, Rohypnol. Holdbrook-Smith brings exactly the right smarmy, self-serving superiority to Toby, and Austin, when plunging us into the horror of a depressive episode, suddenly becomes the soul of the play.

Prebble has made some shrewd adjustments to reflect her current all-Black cast. But her subjects are startlingly topical, a decade on: how we're not confronting the medical challenges of living longer; whether we should be tackling mental health issues primarily with medication; and if depression is actually rational when “the world is literally on fire”.

Lloyd uses every creative element with absolute intention, crafting a remarkably intensive, straight-through production. Jon Clark’s boxes of light variously isolate or join, restrict or release the actors. He also punctuates a delicate montage of the lovers’ burgeoning affair like dreamy music.

Soutra Gilmour’s spare catwalk set helps facilitate the swift pacing and puts focus on the powerfully physical performances – body language is almost as articulate as speech. George Dennis and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s soundscape is viscerally affecting; as its heart-pounding thuds grow, your own heart starts to match them.

It all adds up to a thoroughly theatrical experience, one in which you’re hyper-aware of the show’s liveness: what’s happening on stage, and how you’re responding to it in the moment – or even contributing yourself. Thrillingly effective.

The Effect is at the National Theatre through 7 October.

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Photo credit: The Effect (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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