The Effect at the National Theatre
On entering the Lyttelton Theatre space at the National Theatre, seating is arranged on either side of a fluorescent floor-lit stage. The atmosphere is of a club night about to begin, rather than a play. As the audience is then plunged into darkness, strobe lights flash and a smoke machine sets about its business, one wonders if they are indeed in the right place.
With virtually no props to speak of, the stage as the play opens is how it remains for the duration, with two young characters in the centre on the floor in all-white track Bs and hoodies, flanked on either side by two older characters atop chairs, dressed in contrasting black. The intermittently harsh, bright lighting and total darkness denotes a change of scenes. All else about the setting and story is conjured by the dialogue and movements of the cast.
That setting, we come to understand, is a drugs trial, with the white-clad pair the participants, those in black the ones running the trial. The drug they are testing is an antidepressant; on staged increases of the dosage, the effects, and side-effects (though which is which proves to be the point of contention) are to be noted and recorded. And so ensues this undeniably intense, unexpectedly hilarious and thought-provoking study in mental health, ethics and the nature of love and relationships.
The production is about as stripped-back as a one can be, therefore it relies heavily on its script and the utterly committed performances from each of its four phenomenal cast to bring it to life. Penned by one of the foremost screen-and-stage writers of her generation, Lucy Prebble (whose credits include I Hate Suzie and Succession), the dialogue hits that exquisite note of seeming entirely natural, the tone and rhythm so accurately reflective of speech it gives the impression of listening in on spontaneous conversation, with all its flaws and bumps, awkward silences and impulsive reactions left in.
Electricity crackles between Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) and Taylor Russell (breakout star of Bones and All in her stage debut) as Tristan and Connie, and each plays off their opposing character brilliantly: one from suburban Canada, the other from Hackney, one more reserved, the other more impulsive, one in a relationship with an older man, the other single. Both nail the comic timing in their quick-witted exchanges and, as the trial escalates, bring an impressive physicality to their interactions, some of a passionate nature, others of fury. Essiedu in particular is explosively good when his character reaches a more unhinged state.
But arguably it’s Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, as doctors Lorna and Toby, who steal the show – perhaps intentionally so, as the supposed supporting roles steadily draw our attention. Where they begin as the more clinical individuals, their own personalities, pasts and relationship reveal themselves and throw the whole narrative into fresh light.
At times, the points the play makes can feel a little on the base or rather bluntly put. But then its purpose seems less specifically about the topics it touches upon regarding pharmaceutical drugs, and more about the idea of mental health itself: what is normality? What is insanity? Do either exist as states or are they only ends of an arbitrarily drawn spectrum? Or, indeed, what is love beyond a hit of dopamine to the brain? And while it’s not always perfectly wrought in its logic (the stripped-back aspect leaves many a question unanswered), the punch to the belly is the rawness of its emotive impact.
If the star-studded audience were anything to go by – Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James Cordon, Paul Mecal and Harry Styles were just a few spotted – anticipation was high for this revival of the 2012 play from Jamie Lloyd. Gutsy, provocative, laugh-out-loud funny, despite the dark material it explores with both cynicism and humanity, it more than lives up to its hype.
Images: Marc Brenner
The Effect is at the National Theatre from 1st August until 7th October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Effect here: