Theatre Review - The effect

Lucy Prebble’s unsettling drama raises interesting questions about pharmaceutical drug trials and the nature of depression. It was written in response to the catastrophic 2006 clinical trial by the American company Parexel, at London’s Northwick Park Hospital. Six volunteers suffered near fatal side effects including multiple organ failure.

First produced at the National’s Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) in 2012, the issues Prebble explores are as pertinent today and deserving of a wide audience.

Two volunteers, Connie (Taylor Russell in a stunning stage debut) and Tristan (the talented Paapa Essiedu), both dressed in white tracksuits, participate in a drug trial for an anti-depressant. Things get complicated when they start falling for one another.  Neither is sure who has been given a placebo and how much their emotions are being controlled by the drugs.

The experiment is presided over by two doctors, a concerned Lorna James (Michele Austin) who has herself suffered from depression and appears emotionally invested in the trial, and the rather less ethical Toby Sealey (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). It transpires the pair have had an affair.  

Russell and Essiedu’s chemistry is electrifying and they give terrific performances as two young adults struggling to keep  their feet on the ground and make sense of their emotions. Connie, a student from Canada, already has a boyfriend. Tristan from Hackney is footloose and flirtatious. Both have enlisted in the experiment because they need the money.  Their central relationship is key to the drama’s success.

Soutra Gilmour’s traverse platform divides the auditorium and it’s beautifully, starkly staged by Jamie Lloyd. The lovers’ physical relationship is conveyed though arresting tableaux with evocative lighting by Jon Clark and an atmospheric score by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante.

With a run time of 100 minutes and no interval, the only distraction is the chronically uncomfortable seating which inhibits complete immersion in this thrilling production.

To October 7

Originally published by Westminster Extra