Last Updated on 25th August 2023
Paul T Davies reviews Lucy Prebbles The Effect now playing at the National Theatre.
National Theatre, Lyttleton.
23 August 2023
A clinical trial for a new anti-depressant drug. The participants, Tristan, and Connie, are young, meeting the criteria, always observed by Doctor Lorna James, who is in turn observed by Dr. Toby Sealey. As the trial goes on, feelings develop between Connie and Tristan, but is it love or the effects of the drug? To complicate matters, one of them is taking a placebo, or so Doctor James thinks. Lucy Prebble’s exhilarating, tricksy play, is given a fine revival by Jamie Lloyd, performed by an exquisite cast, that asks us to look at depression and medication, and the whole messy business of love, and messier when the trail begins to go wrong.
At first Soutra Gilmour’s set runs the risk of being too clinical, it’s performed traverse, actors stay within distinct lighting squares and spots, and it can feel like watching a tennis match from where you are in the sudatorium. But the lines are rallied and lobbed perfectly, and as the actors begin to break out of the restrictions of the trail, the set flows with urgent lighting, especially when the actors are close to each other. Paapa Essiedu brings a Hackney swagger to Tristran, his cockiness becoming unravelled by love, the journey towards his ill health subtly developed. He is matched by Taylor Russell’s younger, innocent Connie, unwilling to break the rules of the trial, questioning whether his feelings are natural or chemical.
Michele Austin beautifully captures Doctor James’s battle with depression, refusing, ironically, to take medication as she doesn’t trust the process she oversees. Always there is her former love, Doctor Sealey, in an understated and powerful performance by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, the man who is really in charge. It’s also an aural experience, not just in composer Michael ‘Mickey J’ Asante’s trance-like score, alternating between gentleness and tension, but the four voices are beautiful, close your eyes for a while and listen to them, this is a seductive and perfect ensemble.
Central to Pebble’s script is depression, how we treat it and what are the effects, but it also zings with comedy and superb one-liners. Post-pandemic, and with current concerns, the play has taken on a greater significance. Played without an interval, the time flew by in this perfectly paced production, catch it before it ends!