Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Theatre review: The Effect

Following their hugely successful (except in America) work on ENRON, writer Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold reunite for a play with no lightsabres or velociraptors but plenty of fireworks of a different kind. The final show to be staged in the Cottesloe in its present form, The Effect is a "clinical romance" set in the world of drug trials on human guinea pigs. Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O'Neill) are being paid to spend a month locked away in a testing clinic, with almost no contact with the outside world, and have a new antidepressant tested on them. As the dosage is increased their bodies' reactions will be monitored, but one effect the doctors haven't prepared for is for the two to fall in love. As Lorna (Anastasia Hille,) the independent psychiatrist monitoring the results, tries to keep them apart, the pair keep finding ways to get together. What their love might not be able to weather though is the fact that it might not even be real - are their feelings for each other simply a side-effect of the drug?

Designer Miriam Buether hasn't quite reinvented the wheel as much as she did for Earthquakes in London but her set for The Effect is still impressively immersive - staged in the round, the pit level is like an oversized waiting room, with audience on the sofas surrounding the action (and a couple of hidden entrances so for instance Hille can go off and do a costume change then crawl out from under a table.) I was in the cheap restricted view seats and although a few things did happen just out of view, for the most part everything important was visible (there's one crucial event right at the end I had to half-stand and lean forward to make sure I caught,) and though I'm sure being part of the set helps, the production doesn't need it to make you feel immersed in the story. One of the play's main concerns, especially in the first act, is a bit similar to that in Donny's Brain, but even better dealt with: Where love fits into the chemical and electrical impulses that make up the brain, and consequently who we are. We discover that one (we're not initially told which) of Connie and Tristan is actually a control, unknowingly being given placebos. So is one of the pair's love more "real" than the other's?

Prebble wrote all four roles specifically for these actors, and Piper and O'Neill create a central relationship that you want to get behind, their flirtation sparking from the off, and becoming increasingly sexually charged (O'Neill has aFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!albeit one in virtual darkness. Or to put it another way, I couldn't describe Jonjo Jr to you but I can confirm his existence.) Perhaps unsurprisingly the role Prebble's created for O'Neill is a twinkly-eyed charmer, and he has a lot of the play's funniest moments, although everyone is given a chance at the odd dry one-liner. He and Piper also really excel though in the movingly dramatic turns that their love story takes.

The other concern of the play is another one of personal interest to me, looking at depression and other mental illnesses - indeed, perhaps all illnesses - and their treatment in terms of their effectiveness versus the pharmaceutical companies' profits. If the placebo effect is all that's at work, is that necessarily a bad thing? This is Hille's moment to shine, as Connie and Tristan's relationship gives Lorna concerns she shares with the man who hired her for the job, fellow clinical psychiatrist Toby (Tom Goodman-Hill,) who now works for the pharmaceutical company - and also happens to be her ex-boyfriend from many years ago. With his company's profits in mind, he's got a vested interest in interpreting the test results as showing the drug being effective, but for reasons of her own that become apparent later on, is Lorna just as intent on getting the opposite results?

Goodman-Hill's role gradually builds as the play goes on, and he's very good at providing a subtlety to a character we could easily stereotype - Toby's first priority is making sure his company profit from the new drug, but he makes us believe this can coexist with a desire to genuinely help people.

Goold's direction is unusually restrained here but to devastating effect. There's none of the famous Gooldian touches but they're not missed because with the story high-concept enough, the director's opted for a simplicity that cuts to the heart of the story and really makes you care. Although I often dread the sight of a large school group turning up at the theatre, when the show's a good one they can often provide some of the most telling reactions, and with the whole row in front of me taken up with teenagers they seemed entertained by the comedy, absorbed by the romance and smitten with O'Neill; and at one particular moment of crisis near the end two girls suddenly hugged each other for support as they waited to see how it would pan out.

The Effect deals with a couple of subjects I have either an academic interest in or a personal connection to, and I found it pretty hard to fault. Phill was also full of praise, and even found that after a while he could look at Dame William Piper without wanting to break into a chorus of "Because We Want To," so that's a thing. A show that stays entertaining throughout, and by the end has become profoundly moving.

The Effect by Lucy Prebble is booking in repertory until the 23rd of February at the National Theatre's Cottesloe (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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