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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Cottesloe)


  Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill/ Ph: Ellie Kurtz

Would you rather live in a world where love arrives in a coup de foudre, or a dopamine surge? Would you serenade a lover with the words "I’ve got you under my skin" or "You’re doing strange things to my caudate nucleus" (the primitive part of the brain)? There have been enough plays about neurology to prove that it is immensely tricky to dramatise. Not least because the moment you start privileging, say, electrical impulses over the Electra complex, you threaten to strip away the emotional complexities that pump the heart of all great drama.

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect works so well because it allows for the inadequacy of neurology in explaining human behaviour at the same time as it flirts with the fascination of mapping out our deepest impulses in a laboratory. The Enron writer famously turned the financial scandal into a post-modern musical with greater success in the U.K. than the U.S. Here, collaborating with director Rupert Goold again, she strikes an intriguing tone as she puts the microscope on two individuals who have submitted themselves for a drug trial.

The audience enters the Cottesloe to find themselves in a posh waiting room. On Miriam Buether’s set, the carpet and low couches in muted mustard tones provide a clinically minimalist setting. The sense that the humans who visit here will be treated primarily as empirical phenomena is enhanced by Jon Driscoll’s sci-fi slick computer projections. Throughout the evening, these simulate the lights of an MRI scan as they encapsulate the participants in green light, throwing up images of their brain activity on screens on either side of the room.

Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill play the highly articulate guinea pigs who have volunteered to test a new form of anti-depressant. Piper has long proved her abilities go far beyond her "star-casting" status. Here she plays a psychology student, Connie, all wide-smiled girl-next-door beauty and bolshie sophistication. Neatly she charts the arc of her character’s development as her laughter-provoking scepticism disintegrates, and she is left floundering in emotional quicksand.

O’Neill, as the charming Ulsterman Tristan who leads her into that quicksand, is a remarkable presence. Earlier this year he gave a widely lauded Richard III at the RSC. Here he shows that he doesn’t need to play a tyrant to dominate the stage, with his deftly witty delivery, mercurial charm, and physical agility that’s best displayed in an impromptu tap dance he gives after sticking drawing pins into his trainers. It’s inevitable, given the dramatic structure, that the two of them will fall in love. What’s fascinating is that they also know that the anti-depressant they are on produces a dopamine surge that simulates the feelings of attraction. With the additional complication that one of them could be on a placebo, they try to charter their feelings for each other in the knowledge it could all be an illusion.

Goold, a director normally renowned for his coups de theatre, proves himself here as someone who can coax intellectually compelling, emotionally disarming performances from his actors. Tom Goodman-Hill puts in a gloriously comic turn as the flashy, self-satisfied doctor presiding over the tests. And Anastasia Hille takes the acting crown for the evening as the wryly melancholic medic who interacts with the patients, all the while fighting her own battle with depression. It is she who raises the crucial questions. Is the history of medicine the history of placebos? Do depressed people have a more realistic view of the world? And she who proves the heartbreaking impossibility of answering any of these questions for certain.

The most successful aspect of the evening, ironically, is its emphasis on our fallibility. The more we think we are in control of our lives – technologically and medically – the more we realise that we are not. A somewhat daunting conclusion for those involved in science. But for those involved in theatre, a guarantee of great dramas to come.


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