"An astonishingly rich and rewarding play, as intelligent as it is deeply felt."
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.
Author: Charles Spencer
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.
When he sees the central couple's pulsing brain scans, Tom Goodman-Hill's smug Dr Sealey is convinced that it indicates a successful antidepressant effect. For him, it's not a case of the brain mistaking what it is undergoing for love, but of love as the brain's creative rationalisation of the neural excitement. Anastasia Hille's troubled Dr James has a good reason for contradicting this, though: she knows that one of the patients is on a placebo. As Connie and Tris descend from erotic bliss to paranoid aggression, the doctors fracture into opposing extremes, with the unravelling Dr James charging her former partner of promoting the view that depression is purely a matter of chemical imbalance as a way of excusing his moral responsibility for her own breakdown.
This is a provocative and challenging play and, as someone who has long had cause to be grateful for breakthroughs in medication, it ends in edgy gesture of good sense that made me feel like cheering.
Author: Paul Taylor
"A remarkable play."
"Four matchless performances."
"Theatre and medicine collide magnificently in Lucy Prebble’s provocative new play"
"A four-hander that hopscotches confidently across themes of neurology, neuropharmacology , depression, love and guilt."
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.