Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Effect, National Theatre

Review: The Effect, National Theatre

Anyone writing drama about cutting-edge scientific research has a problem; namely, us. The idiots watching. For most of us, phrases like “dopaminergic pathways” or “amygdala activity” might as well be in Ewokese. Mention a Jacksonian March and we’ll assume you mean the moonwalk, not a – quote-unquote – contiguous spread of electrical discharges through the superficial cortex. Whatever that is.

If we’re to understand, dramatists need to simplify. Only by doing so, by using layman’s terms and analogy, they inevitably stretch credibility. There can’t be many clinical psychologists researching anti-depressants that need to define depression to one another, as Lucy Prebble’s do here. You half expect the actors to snap-turn outwards, sexily flick the hair out of their faces and purr, “Here comes the sciencey bit.”

It goes beyond explanation in The Effect, though. Prebble’s play, her first since the international success of Enron, centres on a drug trial with ten participants – one of whom is a control, nine of whom are men. Two of the participants sneak an expressly forbidden fag and an even more off-limits fuck. One discovers he’s on a placebo, yet still the white coats plough on. Even by the dubious standards of pharmaceutical giant Rauschen, which Prebble is admittedly out to skewer, that’s a pretty blasé approach to scientific rigour. Given that lethal side-effects can occur in, what, one in a thousand cases, any findings will be only marginally more conclusive than the geography coursework I based on 300 self-penned shopping questionnaires.

Perhaps, though, we should take Prebble’s word. She did, after all, sign up for just such a clinical trial by way of research, which is some Daniel Day-Lewis shit right there, given the play was inspired by a previous trial that led to organ failure in several volunteers.

Besides, such conveniences are mere niggles in the grand scheme of The Effect and they serve to clear a path for the main event; the two volunteers, Tristan and Connie (Jonjo O’Neill and Billie Piper), that spark up a relationship during the four week trial.

The crux of this is whether their respective feelings are entirely natural or due, in some way, to the drug under trial. As Dr Toby Sealey (Tom Goodman-Hill) puts it, “They’re in a constant state of neural excitement ever since they met, what’s the brain going to conclude?” So far, so standard-issue prod at determinism. “Everything’s just physical in the end isn’t it,” says Dr Lorna James (Anastasia Hille).

In time, that turns into a game of guess who’s on placebo. Now, speaking in terms of dramatic satisfaction, the problem with Tristan and Connie’s relationship is that, well, Tristan’s just a bit of a dick. The thing about Billie Piper, with her mile-wide smile and ski-jump nose, is that you can’t help think how chuffed your parents would be if you brought her home. For her to fall for a hyperactive, irritating waster like Tristan is, for straight men everywhere, a bitter pill to swallow. You just can’t will them to get together. If anything you’re hoping she’ll come to her senses. However, it underlines the possibility that the drugs are to blame, which makes her eventual entrapment all the more poignant. (Though the problem of not knowing what’s just the drugs talking and what’s character or motivation is an interesting one in terms of naturalistic drama.)

Because, as the play goes on, Prebble develops the question of determinism into one of responsibility. While the mirrors between the triallists’ relationship and that of the doctors is a touch pat – actually, in a four-hander, it’s just a bit nakedly exposed – the implication is that we’re pretty crap at taking responsibility, both for ourselves and each other. Connie’s decision to live with the consequences of her actions – whether it be through sheer guilt or some tinge of nobility – is rather excruciating to watch; a delicately-handled Groundhog day that grinds its way towards infinity. It allows Rupert Goold his deftest directorial touch in the final moments, as Tristan and Connie walk, arm in arm, in silent circles.

The Effect works best in the swirl of ideas and questions beneath the surface. Yes, Prebble’s surface scepticism about both corporate greed and depression is sharp, but the secondary questions are more interesting. The territory is vaguer, wispier: the need for and impossibility of control, the elevation of happiness and the issue of responsibility, of committing to our consequences. Every cause has its effects. Rather than nullifying them, burying them under a sedated smile, Prebble demands we face them down.

Photograph: Ellie Kurtz

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