The Effect, National Theatre, 2023
Photo: Courtesy Marc BrennerThe Effect
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


The Effect

3 out of 5 stars

Bold staging from Jamie Lloyd and fine performances from Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell can’t quite hide the fact that Lucy Prebble’s play has dated a bit


Time Out says

Do I actually love Lucy Prebble? Or is it just a chemical reaction in the brain? Her 2012 play ‘The Effect’ asks precisely that question, albeit with different characters. Tristan is a charmer from Hackney; Connie a thoughtful, inward-looking psychology student from Canada. They meet in a double-blind clinical trial for antidepressants and fall in love. But as they upset the trial with their amorous antics, they also wonder whether their love is real or a by-product of the drugs.

When it premiered more than a decade ago, the play was a dopamine hit for critics. Billie Piper starred, Prebble was riding the high of her breakthrough ‘Enron’, the play seemed knotty and wise and relevant. A decade on, Jamie Lloyd directs a revival which, although stylish, has lost some of its efficacy in the intervening years.

Maybe that’s a result of seeing Prebble’s work since: her writing for ‘Succession’; the unremitting panic attack of ‘I Hate Suzie’; her last play ‘A Very Expensive Poison’, a messy, madly inventive account of the Litvinenko poisoning done as farce. Stacked against her own later work, ‘The Effect’ seems more restrained, maybe even – it feels traitorous to say it – a bit baggy.

As we’d expect from Lloyd, he’s assembled a crack cast including a fabulously naturalistic, loveable Paapa Essiedu (‘I May Destroy You’) as Tristan and Taylor Russell as Connie, straight from the success of the brilliant cannibal love story ‘Bones and All’ – her furrowed brows and constant self-questioning are an excellent contrast to Essiedu’s flirty confidence.

Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith complete the quartet: she’s the trial director Lorna, struggling with her own mental health issues (does that affect her handling of the trial?) and Holdbrook-Smith as Toby, her sort-of-boss, sort-of-lover – both captivating performances.

But Lloyd sometimes brings flash when he should bring pace. In Soutra Gilmour’s design, the Lyttelton auditorium has been split into traverse seating, with an LED catwalk between the two banks of audience; it glows clinically white with squares of light as the actors stand on it. There are lots of blackouts, then zings of light, like imitations of synapses firing in the brain. Meanwhile, an actual brain sits prosaically in a plastic bucket throughout, a brilliantly simple encapsulation of the play.

Lloyd plays with stage pictures, and the shapes of two bodies as they fall in love. Russell and Essiedu keep to separate squares to start with, then as their entanglement develops they dance around each other, before being locked in embraces. The play’s climax belongs to Essiedu, who sprawls and spits his way towards psychological collapse.

It’s lit beautifully by Jon Clark, George Dennis’s sound design is perfect, but what Lloyd slightly struggles to articulate is why revive the play now. The script has been updated to reflect the casting: one of the most powerful additions is the way Austin’s Lorna explores the connection between mental health and simply existing as a Black woman in the world. But to delve deeply into that would be a different play; here it comes across as an emendation, crying out for further exploration.

Then again, maybe not falling deeply in love with the play is its point. It tantalisingly asks many more questions than it answers. Food for the brain in the bucket, not so nourishing for the heart. Although it’s a bit too long, and although it doesn’t match the greatness of much that has come since, I still love Lucy.


£20-£89. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
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