Review: The Effect, National Theatre

Jamie Lloyd’s direction and Soutra Gilmour’s design really elevate this revival of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect at the National Theatre

“I don’t want to reason with you. I want to know right now, in this moment, what you feel.”

What I particularly love about Jamie Lloyd is his willingness to shake up the British theatrical establishment in its very home. I may not always be the biggest fan of the work but I’m the hugest cheerleader for theatre like this to be sitting in our major houses, big ticket shows that are thinking differently to the tried and tested conventions of the West End and the South Bank.

Which is a bit of a roundabout way of saying I loved that he and designer Soutra Gilmour have taken the vast hall that is the Lyttelton Theatre and put it in traverse for this revival of Lucy Prebble’s 2012 hit play The Effect. It’s a great way of reconceiving the space and an egalitarian one too, sitting in the circle there can often leave you feeling miles away from the action but here, the cheap seats are suddenly much better value.

It’s a canny choice of revival too – Prebble’s star has never been higher thanks to Succession and with a little retooling of some details, this tale of a clinical trial for a new antidepressant cuts right to the quick once again. Tristan and Connie volunteer for the trial but as they begin to fall in love, the fact that one is on the drug but one is taking a placebo throws the whole thing off-course, much to the frustration of the two doctors running the show.

Prebble has a lot to say, about depression, its causes and particularly antidepressants but she comes at it with a remarkably non-judgemental approach which allows Lloyd to tighten the emotional screws to blistering effect. His production probes so clinically into the unfolding relationships between the participants and between the medics too, with wince-inducing insight into love and depression and whatever lies between.

Lloyd has cast the show adroitly too. Paapa Essiedu swaggers delightfully as Tristan, clearly appealing to Canadian Connie, played by Taylor Russell, who lets her self-doubt get swallowed up. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Michele Austin also excel as the doctors, ethically opposed and personally conflicted, Austin shining particularly as she explores how Lorna’s mental health issues cannot be separated from existing in this society as a Black woman.

Jon Clark’s lighting and George Dennis’ sound design alongside Mikey J’s compositions add to the contemporary buzz of the production. Blackouts, illuminated squares tracking the emotional journey, thrumming sound and moody music all build to the devastating conclusion of the play which lingers long in the mind – quite the effect.

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