When Rufus Norris recently announced he was stepping down as director of the National Theatre, some struggled to summarise his legacy. His initiatives to modernise the theatre’s role have largely been administrative. All the average punter has to go on is programming that has often seemed, well, curious.
If you think the South Bank venue is only for stuffy classicists, The Effect could make you think again
For every success of a Hadestown or a Small Island, there’s been the horror of a Hex or a Salome. His Macbeth was mundane. Manor was the first NT show to receive zero stars: something he is not alone in wanting to forget.
Reviving Lucy Prebble’s The Effect may be a last-ditch attempt to show the National in modern clothes. That might seem counterintuitive as it’s a revival. But this production – currently at an unrecognisable Lyttelton – feels fresh, exciting, and achingly ‘now’. If you think the South Bank venue is only for stuffy classicists, The Effect could make you think again.
First performed in 2012 at the National’s smaller Cottesloe (now Dorfman), the play questions whether “the effect” of the antidepressant era is as positive as we may have imagined.
It’s set during the clinical trial of some Prozac 2.0 type drug, run by psychiatrist Dr James (Michele Austin) for her boss, and ex-lover, Dr Sealey (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). The former is efficient and controlled, slowly revealing the cracks that threaten to shatter within. The latter offers support like a criminal comforting their victim. Holdbrook-Smith has a voice like velvet; you’re never sure if it will soothe or smother.
The puppets to these masters are the volunteer patients. Psychology student Connie (Taylor Russell) and your boy from Hackney “before it fell” Tristan (Paapa Essiedu) couldn’t be more different. She is an anxious, softly spoken American, who seems frightened by her own cynicism. He carries himself with the smarts and swagger of the streetwise, oozing with the self-assuredness of someone whose first rodeo this is not.
All four are strong, but Essiedu is in a league of his own. He embodies this lad like he’s just been picked up from Hackney Central. Louche and laid back, he glides across the stage like he is used to quickly making his surroundings his manor. It’s a performance richly filled with naturalistic nuance: ‘izzits’, ‘for reelz’, and throaty giggles fall out of his mouth like adlibs. Watching this makes it hard to imagine Essiedu giving his Hamlet or Romeo. And I mean that as a compliment.
The patients discover they share a birthday. As it is clearly the only thing they have in common, it is given a heightened intimacy that draws them together.
The trial progresses and their relationship is observed. As doses increase, so does the severity of side effects. Changes to appetite, excretion, sleep patterns and hearing are all ascribed to the medication. Changes to their emotional states raise questions.
Mutual attraction leads to playful flirtation. This grows into lustful desire and continues to build until they are declaring true love. The emotional connection first frees, but soon suffocates.
We wonder if this is just opposites attracting or some kind of drug-induced emotional hallucination.
But does it matter either way? The play suggests love may just be a psychological state we construct to avoid being alone. Is that very different from the objectives of a pill?
There are no answers given in The Effect. Because really, there aren’t any.
Director Jamie Lloyd is at the helm for only his second time at the National Theatre.
You may not know the name, but it’s possible you’ve seen one of the 50 shows Lloyd has directed since 2010. Recently, he did an open air, in-your-face, Evita, and a Cyrano de Bergerac with battle raps and bullhorns. His Broadway production of A Doll’s House is currently making audiences actively choose to watch Ibsen.
Unlike directors whose avant-garde approaches are only seen by a self-satisfied minority, Lloyd subverts expectations using quiet precision. His work is always striking, never showy, exciting not extravagant. He is a covert theatre rebel.
That said, his impact here (along with designer Soutra Gilmour) is hard to miss. For a start, the Lyttelton stage has gone. A narrow platform sits traverse style with raked seating on either side.
There is no set, other than a plastic chair at either end where the doctors sit, controlling, or left helplessly watching, the trial. Clinically white light creates the patients’ areas between them. Lighting designer Jon Clark separates the two with clear geometric shapes that slowly merge into one shared space as their relationship progresses.
Bursts of music – dance, rap – punctuate scenes, underscoring emotion and swelling with dramatic clashes. It feels sublimely cinematic, like watching a film being played live.
Let’s just tally the cool points here.
Director Jamie Lloyd: named the 20th Most Powerful Person in British Theatre in 2014. Currently ranking in 10th place. And did I mention, he had the Lyttelton completely f***ing refigured.
Actor Paapa Essiedu: one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2018. Currently in the mix to be the next James Bond.
And then we have the writer, Lucy Prebble.
The Effect was Prebble’s third play. Her second was the smash hit, Enron. Her bestie is uber-cool Billie Piper (the original Connie). Together they wrote “tragedy with laughs”, I Hate Suzie.
In 2021, Prebble was named one of six Queens of Theatre on International Women’s Day. Most recently, Prebble was Exec Producer and lead writer on global hit, Succession.
Watching The Effect makes us pray she lends her supreme talent to theatre again very soon.
Now if that triumvirate of cool doesn’t make you icy, there’s no pleasing you.
The one qualm I have happens as the show reaches its dramatic peak in the middle act. A dosing incident has a major impact on the patients. Meanwhile, the relationship and mental health of those in charge explodes. The tension doesn’t just mount, it is suddenly piled on, like too much dressing ruining a burger.
The small space suddenly seems restrictive and poorly managed. As the two scenes overlap, the actors resort to shouting over each other. The women start at Level Shriek and then just get louder. It sounds as painful for their vocal cords as it is to our ears.
At the same time, Holdbrook-Smith and Austin do that awkwardly stagey thing of running round in circles, trying to escape to nowhere. Like nobody ever does in real life. Because we have things called doors.
The whole thing is dramatic, with a capital A for amateur.
Luckily it gets back on track. But for ten minutes it seems we’re watching an entirely different show. One that wasn’t written by Prebble or directed by Lloyd. (Luckily Essiedu doesn’t speak.) It’s a disturbing anomaly. Without it, I wouldn’t hesitate to award five stars.
Norris clearly wishes his swansong to be his lasting memory. On the horizon, there’s another new musical, but with Roald Dahl’s Witches as the source material, surely that can’t fail.
The National’s production of The Crucible is currently running in the West End. By the end of the year, transfers of The Motive and the Cue, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Dear England will also be there. Following them, in February, are musicals Hadestown and Standing at the Sky’s Edge.
Six National Theatre productions transferring to the West End and running almost simultaneously is an achievement that can’t be overlooked. You want proof of making theatre accessible to a wider audience? Take a look at these shiny theatrical apples.
If this production of The Effect doesn’t become the seventh, I clearly need to change my Prozac dosage.