“Call it what you want, just don’t let it define you”
Though it has arguably had a variable strike rate in terms of hits and misses, the Cottesloe Theatre seems determined to go out roaring in stylish flames before it closes for renovation to re-emerge as the Dorfman, as huge successes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and This House are now followed by Lucy Prebble’s new play The Effect in a co-production with Headlong which, if there’s any justice in the world, should have some kind of further life as with the previous two plays which are transferring into the West End and the Olivier respectively.
Miriam Buether works her transformative magic once again to reconfigure the theatre into the waiting room of a modern private clinic, one in which a clinical trial is about to begin. Two people have signed up to try out this new drug and two doctors monitor them, looking for the answers that they hope will be provided. What they are looking for is to see how much their medicine can influence what we call our feelings, our emotions, as they try to figure out if the highs of love and attraction and the lows of deep depression can be controlled with just a tweak of the dosage. But though they are seeking to run a scrupulous experiment, their human subjects respond in unexpected ways as they try to tease apart what is real and what is manufactured in the world of heady emotion they are now feeling.
With it being a Headlong production, there’s an unmistakable physicality about the show and none more than in the movement, which marks it as directly related to Enron. This stylised body language is used most effectively in the first half to suggest the interminable passing of time and the repetition of activities in a medical trial and combined with Jon Driscoll’s colourful scrolling projections, they work extremely well. There’s much less of this vivacity after the interval as the drama heightens, but there’s one more lovely visual surprise in store.
But it is a beautifully written piece of theatre as well. The way that Prebble manages to encapsulate so much of what makes up a relationship in so short a space of time is nothing short of a miracle, and it is given exceptional life by the performances from Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill as the subjects who find themselves experiencing so much. From the initial thrill of promise that comes from illicit, heady flirtation to the genuine charge of finding an explosive emotional and physical connection, we’re swept headlong into this world and it is made all the more tragic for not knowing if it is real or the pills. And the lows are depicted just as convincingly as the highs with some simply devastating fight work and an aching sense of confused regret creeping in as resolves are tested all around.
Against this entirely gripping love story, Prebble puts the more reflective story of the medical staff working on the project. It’s a brave choice as it is a less vivid and perhaps less emotionally compelling strand but it is one which explores the themes of the play just as much, especially in Hille’s emotive dissection of how little we genuinely know about the causes of depression. And the quiet devastation that builds as she duels with Tom Goodman-Hill’s senior doctor over what the results of the tests actually mean and gradually loses her grip on her own mental state has its own moving power.
Overall, it does feel a little overlong at the minute (press night is on Tuesday) and it is tempting to say that this is something that Goold could address rather simply by doing everything a little bit less. It’s not that there are ideas in here that don’t work – indeed in my opinion, I thought they all paid off well – but rather that there’s too much over-extension. In the utterly gorgeous scene that closes the first act, it feel like the hand is overplayed with a couple of interchanges too many, when the central point has already been so eloquently made. So too with the final scene, soundtracked by Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘Keep Breathing’, it’s a great moment but just a shade too long at the moment.
But make no mistake, The Effect is a pretty exceptional piece of theatre. After the disappointment (for me, at least) of People, this felt very much closer to my vision of what a national theatre should be doing and so it is probably a reflection of the National Theatre’s strength that it can manage to be more than one thing to one person. But do your damnedest to get tickets for this, who knows what effect it might have it you miss it.*