10 August 2023
THE Effect (National Theatre, Lyttelton) Review
This production is a revival of the 2012 Lucy Prebble’s play, which was premiered that year at the National (albeit at the Collesloe Theatre since renamed to Dorfman). It was directed by Rupert Goold, who’s been the Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre since 2013, and starred Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill as the main two characters. The production had all manner of rave reviews. It was called witty, provocative, challenging, fresh, and moving, just to name a few.
At high level, the play is about two young people (perhaps 20-somethings?), Connie and Tristan. They are enrolled in a drug trial, so when they start having feelings for one another, they question whether it’s a genuine attraction or a side effect of the drug.
This production is running at the Lyttelton theatre (double the size of Dorfman) with the stage replaced by a narrow walkway and raked stalls-like seating constructed on the other side, so that the play is essentially staged in a round (or sideways, if you prefer). I was ready to be challenged, moved, and provoked.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. The more Jamie Lloyd-directed productions I see, the more I want to like them, but the less I actually do. So little is new, and so much is a rehash of something he has already done or others have done elsewhere. The use of lights and squares I quite liked: it’s like a shorthand for the characters being together or apart, in-sync on out-of-sync, agreeing on disagreeing. The narrow walkway though with a round staging? Do I need to remind people of “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ train” in 2019 (review here) and, to a lesser degree, “Wings” in 2017 (review missing) at the Young Vic? I desperately want Jamie Lloyd to do something that it’s just a couple of actors and some chairs walking about on a stage… I get it, no props, just actors. But, for me personally, it’s starting to get old. My other criticism with Lloyd’s direction here is that Taylor Russell, who plays Connie, never seems to lift her head: she was looking at her feet most of the play, and then she was looking at her feet some more at curtain call. Between hazy and dim lighting and a staging where, presumably, Lloyd is relying on us reading the actor’s facial expressions, this was less than ideal.
Russell is Canadian, so some adjustments have been made to the play to account for it. Her take on Connie is oddly lopsided, and her body language doesn’t seem to correspond to the words she is saying. It’s like I wanted her to do something to make me feel happy or sad or sorry for her character, but we never got there. Paapa Essiedu brought excellent energy to Tristan. He is cheeky and funny and rude, and he makes it easy to see why Tristan gets under Connie’s skin. Essiedu is especially good in the last few scenes of the play where he communicates with his face and body the way I wanted Russell to.
Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith play the two psychiatrists: the former is administering the trial for the drug the latter is researching. Not having read the play, I don’t know how these two were written, the two actors in the original production were white, whereas here they are black, and it’s my understanding that some text was changed to incorporate racial themes. Sadly these amounted to a couple of lines from Austin (most notably, “I’m a working-class Black woman, getting out of bed in the morning is a political statement”), but that’s that. There is simply not enough room in the play to explore anything except its immediate subject: there is only so much focus to go around, and it’s spent on pondering whether the relationship between Connie and Tristan is down to drugs or genuine feelings. I don’t see the point of dipping into a subject if it’s not going to go explored to a satisfying degree.
Having said that, let’s talk about how the play aged in the 11 years since its premiere. Maybe the magic was in the acting more so than in the text, but I don’t see a lot of relevance in this play to the world we live in. About a third of the play is spent to-ing and fro-ing about what is driving the chemistry of attraction. I suppose we can extend this interpersonal relationships in general, but nothing in this play (until, perhaps, when we get to the last few scenes, but more on that later) shows any kind of personal growth from the two main characters. If anything, they become oddly codependent, which isn’t a healthy place to be, but they seem to be perfectly happy there. Another third of this play, the one I enjoyed the most, actually, is about preservation of one’s career and reputation after some past incidents. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve come or how much you’ve tried to improve; negative things will always follow you. This is by far the most astute observation in the play. The last third is about decisions Connie makes and how she copes with their aftereffects. I don’t know if the “effect” of the title refers to the effect of the drug in the clinical trial or the effect one decision has on the next ones for Connie. The latter would certainly present a far more interesting proposition. Unfortunately, the hopeful note on which the play ends put me off. Connie is presented as doing the “right” or, perhaps, the “noble” thing (we are left guessing as to whether this is out of guilt or out of love with significant signalling toward the former). What I’d really like to see is a scene from 3 months down the road where Connie is drowning her depression in booze at a local bar.
It’s a nice watch and a bit of entertainment, but the play is too superfluous to be significant.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £??.
P.S.: Apparently the ‘original’ revival was slotted for March 2020 at the Boulevard Theatre with different cast and creatives. I had no idea…