"An astonishingly rich and rewarding play, as intelligent as it is deeply felt."The Telegraph
"A remarkable play."The Times
"Four matchless performances."The Mail on Sunday
"Theatre and medicine collide magnificently in Lucy Prebble’s provocative new play"The Sunday Express
"A four-hander that hopscotches confidently across themes of neurology, neuropharmacology , depression, love and guilt."The Sunday Times
Rupert Goold triumphs again with his comedic yet clinical take on love.
The immersive set unfolds into a scientific journey from brain to heart, challenging everything we ever knew of human physche.
Set in a clinical testing centre, The Effect delves deep into the limits of modern medicine as Tristan (Jonjo O'Neill) and Connie (Billie Piper) subject themselves to a trial of the antidepressant RLU37.
Soon enough they can't fight their feelings any longer and neither the audience or couple can differentiate between love or drug.
Lucy Prebble is a playwright blessed with an exceptionally fine mind. She proved that with Enron, which made a financial ignoramus like me feel that I understood complex fraud and the devious workings of big business. Now in The Effect she turns her attention to the brain itself, suggesting how it works and more importantly, how it can go wrong.
The action is set in a swish private clinic, brilliantly realised in Miriam Buether’s design, with the audience sitting as if in a luxurious medical waiting room, yet also privy to what is going on in the consulting rooms. Trials are in progress on a new kind of anti-depressant, which two paid volunteers are taking to discover whether there are any adverse side effects. What it appears to be doing is producing an anti-depressant effect even though they aren’t actually depressed. They seem indeed to be as high as kites, and the pair, beautifully and often heart-wrenchingly played by Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill, fall head over heels in love. But is it just the drugs creating the magic? And in any case, isn’t it just chemicals naturally occurring in the brain that make us fall in love anyway?
The play digs deeply and provocatively into the mysteries of the mind, and also examines the nature of depressive illness. Are anti-depressant drugs any more than a placebo, the play asks, and is being depressed just a natural part of the human condition rather than an illness? As someone emerging from a bad bout of clinical depression myself, the play struck me as being both wise and sane, raising more questions than it answers, to be sure, but that seems a sign of integrity in a work dealing with such a complex subject.
But what makes The Effect so special, is that as well as being a play of ideas, it is also deeply moving, both in its depiction of the giddy wonder of love, and also in its account of the terrifying wasteland of depression itself. Rupert Goold can be a bit of a flash harry as a director, but there is a beautiful tenderness and grace about this production. Billie Piper, an actress with an amazing ability to tap into deep and apparently entirely spontaneous emotion, is superb as the drugs triallist awaking to love but fearful that it might all be a chemical trick. And Jonjo O’Neill is equally fine as her ebullient lover who becomes deeply poignant in the latter section of the play.
Tom Goodman-Hill brings a fascinating moral ambiguity to the doctor leading the trials, and Anastasia Hille moves from dry humour to something far more desolate as his assistant.
The Effect is an astonishingly rich and rewarding play, as intelligent as it is deeply felt.
By Michael Billington
How do you follow a big hit? Just as Jez Butterworth succeeded Jerusalem with the more modest The River, so Lucy Prebble follows her spectacular Enron with an intimate four-hander that examines love, depression and the limitations of neuroscience. It's an absorbing, if slightly diagrammatic, drama immaculately directed by Rupert Goold in a joint production between Headlong and the National Theatre.
Prebble's setting is a posh clinic where paid volunteers take part in pharmaceutical drug trials. We meet two of the guinea pigs: Tristan, a boisterously flirty Ulsterman, and Connie, a bright psychology student.
As they take ever stronger dosages, they are closely monitored by a psychiatrist, Lorna, who is herself being supervised by another doctor, Toby, with whom she enjoys an edgily tense relationship. But, escaping Lorna's policing, Tristan and Connie start to fall in love. What they are not sure of is whether their newfound passion is instinctive or a byproduct of dopamine.
Prebble uses the situation to explore some big questions mostly articulated in the debates between the two doctors. Toby passionately argues that we are witnessing an epidemic of depression which is the result of a chemical imbalance that can be cured by medication.
Lorna takes the opposite view: that "so-called depressed people have a more accurate view of the world" and that the cause of their illness often lies in external factors. Prebble herself clearly leans towards the latter view just as she shows that the love between Tristan and Connie depends on something deeper than artificial stimulants.
It's a fascinating debate, but I feel Prebble overstresses the parallels between the two couples. For a play that supports the validity of the heart's affections, it often seems strangely cerebral; and there is a certain structural neatness about the way Tristan's instinctive ardour is matched by Lorna's own longstanding depression. But at least the play is questioning and profoundly wary of what Steven Poole in the programme calls the idea that neuroscience "has a right to become the ultimate arbiter of any human activity".
The piece is also beautifully staged by Goold in a Miriam Buether set that turns the Cottesloe into a clinical institution filled with beige banquettes. And the acting is excellent throughout. Billie Piper, as she proved in Treats and Reasons to Be Pretty, has a strong stage presence, and endows Connie with a glowing warmth and palpable hunger for love. Jonjo O'Neill is equally good as the volatile Tristan, who is randy, funny and disobedient, even if I found it difficult to believe that the character's susceptibility to seizure wouldn't have been checked in advance.
But Anastasia Hille and Tom Goodman-Hill carry the main burden of the play's argument, and do so with utter conviction. There is a wiry tenseness to Hille that makes her confession of the character's depression totally plausible. And Goodman-Hill has the right mix of assurance and guilt that comes from a man who believes that antidepressants are a universal cure-all.
It's not a flawless play, but it's a palpably intelligent one that proves Enron was not a flash in the pan and that Prebble is one of the long line of dramatists who view medical practice with a rational scepticism.
By Paul Taylor
Dramatist Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold certainly can't be accused of dodging difficult subject matter. They scored a huge success with Enron, which drew high praise for the vivid physicality with which it conveyed the mind-bending ingenuities of corporate fraud.
Now the dream team is reunited on The Effect, Prebble's follow-up play. Searingly well-performed in Goold's co-production with Headlong and choreographed in a manner that is tinglingly alert to the fierce emotional geometries of the piece, this four-hander brings the author's agile wit, intellectual penetration and a fresh, deeply affecting empathy to bear on a fundamentally much more complex topic than finance: brain chemistry and what it can – and cannot – tell us about the causes of severe depression and the experience of being in love.
All straight lines and sleek minimalism, Miriam Buether's in-the-round set converts the Cottesloe into the residential research unit of a pharmaceutical company where psychology student Connie (excellent Billie Piper) and Jonjo O'Neill's Northern Irish, attractively subversive Tristan meet as fellow test-subjects (for cash) on the trial of a new super-antidepressant. They have been deliberately chosen as non-depressives and as the dopamine kicks in, they rebel against the monitored rigidity of the procedure with a flirtation that begins with banter over urine samples and escalates, via what can be described only as a mating tap-dance, to explosive, full-blown passion. But given the chemicals with which they have been pumped, can they trust their emotions? "I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect," Tristan declares. But Connie, whose agitated mix of wired-up emotional transparency and wariness is most movingly communicated by Piper, is sceptical of the feelings that are coursing through her.
See full review.