The Effect – National Theatre, London

Review: Richard Maguire

Writer: Lucy Prebble

Director: Jamie Lloyd

At its heart, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect is a love story, although the emotions of the two main characters could be a side-effect of the antidepressants they are taking rather than proof of any real connection between them, With new studies suggesting that the withdrawal symptoms of coming off antidepressants are more severe than first thought and that long term antidepressant use can cause other health problems, Jamie Lloyd’s revival comes just at the right time and looks electric in traverse staging.

Tristan and Connie have volunteered to test some new antidepressants. However, ‘volunteered’ may not be the correct term as both are being paid, Connie receiving more as she is a student at university. Before the trial can start, Connie has to prove that she’s not pregnant while Tristan has to disclose whether he has had any mental health issues in the past. Dr Lorna James approves them both.

Locked up in a medical facility which has been built next to an old asylum, it’s inevitable that Tristan and Connie will fall in love. We’ve watched enough episodes of Big Brother to know that environments closed off from the outside world are hotbeds of irrational and intense passions that don’t often survive in civvy street.

On the face of it, the two patients aren’t compatible. Taylor Russell’s Connie is a middle-class Canadian who is dating one of her college professors. At first, she thinks that she is too good for Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) who is from Hackney and who talks in Multicultural London English. When they first meet in the facility, Tristan comes on a bit too strong, his flirting style out-of-date for 2023. His pre-#MeToo approach is the only sign that this play is from 2012.

But Essideu’s Tristan is so charming and lovable that it’s easy to see why Connie falls so quickly and heavily for him. When Essideu delivers his lines, he’s hardly ever still, dancing or moving rapidly from foot to foot. This nervous energy comes with an endearing wish to please. Russell gives Connie an initial reserve, but it’s clear to see that this is only a front for an acute vulnerability that is the result of a suburban childhood. Connie worries that Tristan’s affection is nothing more than a dopamine rush. He argues that it doesn’t matter as the result – love – is the same.

Their cross-class relationship is mirrored in the one between Lorna (Michele Austin) and her boss Dr Toby Sealey (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), both characters now black adding a new dimension to the play that now tackles, if very slightly, issues of racism. He has already abused his position of power by sleeping with Lorna at an academic conference. Today they have a fractious relationship and he wishes that she would take pills for her episodes of depression. She believes that antidepressants will only numb her to how bad the world has become but this doesn’t stop her from doling them out to Tristan and Connie.

When Connie discovers that either she or Tristan is actually taking a placebo, The Effect gathers in strength, and whoever’s feelings are authentic weakens them in a way. They are figured as desperate and needy, even psychotic; this passion would better be as a side-effect, helping them to maintain some kind of dignity. The two doctors, too, are engaged in a battle and here Austin is mesmerising as Lorna, tired and jaded, perhaps sensing another episode of depression is to come. She’s patronised by Holdbrook- Smith’s Toby, whose calm and softly-spoken voice conceals his far-reaching influence.

Soutra Gilmour’s bare-boned set and Jon Clark’s monochrome lights turn Prebble’s story into a thriller of the highest order. At the moment, with so many of its shows transferring to the West End, the National has the Midas touch, and The Effect too is solid gold.

Runs until 7 October 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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