In 2009, brainbox playwright Lucy Prebble took the byzantine world of global finance to the West End and Broadway with her ebullient satire 'Enron'. Now she follows it with a play about something even more complicated. 'The Effect' delves into the mysteries of the human brain: of love, depression, neuroscience and the limits of modern medicine. And Prebble pulls it off with assurance, ably abetted by 'Enron' director Rupert Goold, designer Miriam Buether and an excellent cast of four.
'The Effect' lacks 'Enron's demonic pizzazz, but it's just as smart and rather more moving. It tickles our cerebellums in the first half, before tugging expertly on whatever chunk of grey goo is responsible for emotions in the second.
Buether's immersive in-the-round round set is a mocked-up clinical testing centre in which we encounter cocky drifter Tristan (Jonjo O'Neill) and prim, troubled Connie (star turn Billie Piper in a head down, ego-free performance) as they prepare to be the subjects of a paid clinical trial of an antidepressant called RLU37. Confined for weeks on end, the two start to fall for each other, much to the consternation of Connie, who has a boyfriend. But is it real? Or is it just the drugs? And are they both actually taking the drugs?
Prebble poses these questions with puckish wit in a first half in which balances Piper and O'Neill's enjoyably feisty flirtation with Goold's intense evocation of the lab's feverish rigour.
But it's the second half where 'The Effect's brilliance becomes apparent, as the emotional focus of the story shifts over to the couple's supervising doctor Lorna (Anastasia Hille). Hille takes this clinical psychologist, who suffers from depression herself, on an extraordinary arc from faceless authority figure to an almost Cassandra-like tragic heroine, full of knowledge about her condition but unable to alter it. It is a tour de force performance from Hille, and gives 'The Effect' a heart as well as a brain.
But a brain it does have, and Prebble's play lucidly cuts through all the stats it throws up and questions it mischievously poses. To begin to understand the human mind, she suggests, it's crucial to realise that even neuroscientists know very little about it. As Lorna says to her amoral boss Toby (the reliably great Tom Goodman-Hill): 'If your brain was simple enough for you to be able to understand, you'd be too simple to understand it.'