Review – The Effect, National Theatre

Monday 3 December 2012

People ask us why we go to the theatre so much. Often we ask ourselves why we go at all.

Lucy Prebble‘s first post-ENRON play The Effect provides an answer: it’s a distraction from the fact that we’re all going to die. Everything is.

That makes it sound as though a visit to the Cottesloe Theatre is even bleaker than usual but believe us it isn’t. Prebble has come up with a superbly entertaining – if long – (2 hrs 45 mins) play which is gripping, poignant and frequently very funny.

Set in-the-round (we know!) in a smartly realised (Miriam Buether) pharmaceutical trials clinic two ‘trialists’ Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill) and Connie (Billie Piper) meet and fall in love. Or do they? They are being paid to test an antidepressant. But what are the side-effects? How can they tell if their feelings are real or being triggered by their regular doses of RLU37? Things get really complicated when it emerges that one may not be on the drug at all but simply a placebo. What does that mean about their feelings for each other?

Director Rupert Goold has reigned in his usual flourishes for a relatively straightforward yet always stylishly beautiful-to-look-at telling of the story. Act 1 is playful and potentially rom-comish as the practical and already-in-a-relationship Connie initially resits Tristan’s flirtatious advances.

Piper again proves what a delightfully natural, unforced presence she is on stage with impressive gymnastic prowess (we imagine her party piece is to recreate the ‘spiderwalk’ scene from The Exorcist). O’Neill is splendidly effervescent and charismatic. He gets to give a convincing (and we should know) account of amnesia and to receive a handjob (a theatrical first for us we believe). He even delivers a delightful tap dance routine using drawing pins pressed into his trainers in lieu of tap shoes. The Whingers’ buttons were well and truly pressed. Tap dancing at the Cottesloe! Whatever next? Plate-spinning? We hope so.

Act 2 sees the focus shift slightly to accommodate a parallel story involving the doctors’ lives and Tom Goodman-Hill and Anastasia Hille complete an impressive cast. Hille’s clinical psychologist suffers from depression which may go some way to explain why she does some rather unlikely and frankly unprofessional things in Act 2 which seem at odds with her scrupulous clinical precision before the interval. Would a psychologist offer so much (if anything) about her personal life to her charge and would she really reveal something else which would potentially put the whole trial at risk? Phil found this a bit of an, err, difficult pill to swallow.

Despite this, Hille gives a magnificently dry portrayal of her character and becomes utterly compelling to watch, even if her vocal projection sometimes left the Whingers straining to hear her from the upper reaches of the auditorium.

But questions are raised. Do depressed people have a more accurate take on the world? What about affairs of the heart? Is love real or just chemical? Do we know what goes on in the human brain? The Whingers would be willing to offer theirs up for medical science if they really believed they’d be of any possible help. They’d offer their hearts too, to anyone who could find them.

Coincidentally and a propos of very little, both Whingers confessed to being reminded of songs during the show. Phil ‘s was Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” while Andrew’s mind conjured up no less than Howard Jones’s “What is Love?”.

At the interval Phil delared himself “mesmerised” and “touched” (an almost unique occurrence) and was convinced it was heading towards a five-glass rating. Andrew wasn’t so sure; he was enjoying it but finding it “a little slow” which made Phil wonder if Andrew was on a placebo.

Yes, it’s at the Cottesloe but we liked it a lot. Perhaps The Whingers are both on something after all?



3 Responses to “Review – The Effect, National Theatre”

  1. Rae Coates Says:

    I think Frank Skinner delivered a very creditable “Hand Job “to Joe Caffrey in “Cooking With Elvis ” some years back at The Whitehall Theatre. Don’t know if it was the first —but it was a messy show all round .

  2. Ged Ladd Says:

    Daisy and I went to see this a few weeks ago and largely concur with the whingers on all fronts.

    The set was amazing – we found ourselves on uber-modern sofa-type things right at the front, quite the most comfortable seating experience we have ever had at the Cottesloe. We are Cottesloe lovers, btw, and hate it when the whingers whinge on about that place. The Effect was a very intimate theatrical experience, something that the National can only really do properly at the Cotty.

    The Effect worked on all levels for us. I obsessed a bit that clinical trials don’t really work quite like that, so for once Daisy was telling me to go with the flow and allow a little dramatic licence. But the is a nitpick really, we had a splendid evening and commend this play and production highly.

    • Sandra Clark Says:

      You might not have felt so delighted had you sat in Row S on the second level, straining both to see and hear at all too many points. And more than a little dramatic license is called on to make this at all believable.

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