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The Effect at the National Theatre (Lyttelton), by Lucy Prebble

It’s not just the characters in this reprise of Lucy Prebble’s strange play who go through radical alterations. The Lyttelton auditorium has come out in sympathy by abandoning the conventional arrangement of its space and siting the stage in the centre of the place. This means that the audience is now in two halves, hence shadowily visible to each other across the stage.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. The Effect - National Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. The Effect – National Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Given the play’s preoccupation with fundamental issues of personality, this just might be begging the question of whether we, the onlookers, are also to consider ourselves a divided body. It takes some getting used to. The stage itself has undergone a radical shift of identity, not only by landing itself into this aisle that now separates us voyeurs, but also by consisting of a translucent whiteness. This turns the pair at the heart of the action into strangely shadowless specimens. Human allright – now cold, now sweaty, now randy, now at-it, now traumatised, now contrite – but at the same time animated specimens on the slab of a behavioural laboratory.

The audience is not alone in wondering what on earth is going on. The pair’s interactions are being scrutinised by a physically close but clinically distant observer. Then by two of them when she is joined by a senior male colleague. If you come to the conclusion that the behavioural shifts of the patients, or guinea-pigs, are as much to do with mood-altering drugs as with this unprivate intimacy, you’re right on the money. What we are watching – and what we are watching the two supervising shrinks watching – is emotional vivisection.

This process, and hence the play with it, seems to be interrogating the nature of self. Who, if anyone, owns this commodity; to what extent are or actions the product of desire, or compulsion, or indeed drug-induced mood alteration. In other words, who the **** are we? Why do we act as we do? Was Philip Larkin on the money when he fingered our parents as the culprits? Where, if anywhere, is the essence of our selfhood located? What manner of dance are the creatures of memory, desire and mood engaged in? And while we’re at it, what about the crucial role of that three-pounds-odd, unlovely skullful of grey stuff? Is that really, when we come down to it, who and what we are? It’s a speculation that receives one of the best, if bleakest, examinations in the play as the senior counsellor embarks on such questions. Think of Hamlet’s Yorick scene, but without the skull.

When it comes to the characters of the counsellors, Prebble manages to avoid the temptations of physician-heal-thyself, but they don’t get a free ride either. In one exchange towards the end, their own fallibilities and neuroses are laid almost as bare as those of their patients. A case of the blind leading the blind? Not quite; more a matter of the partially sighted leading the partially sighted.

As the couple under scrutiny in Jamie Lloyd’s direction, Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell are as engaging as they are engaged, with Michele Austin and Kobna Holbrook-Smith almost comical in the mutual reproach that breaks through into their outward composure. Physician heal thyself? That’s certainly part of the story.

4 stars

Review by Alan  Franks

Who I am
Is not
A side effect.

Hearts and minds racing, Connie and Tristan are falling for each other fast. But is their sudden and intoxicating chemistry real, or a side effect of a new antidepressant?

As two young volunteers in a clinical drug trial, their illicit romance poses startling dilemmas for the supervising doctors.

Lucy Prebble’s (Succession) critically acclaimed play returns to the National Theatre in a bold new production directed by Jamie Lloyd (Cyrano de Bergerac).

Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) is joined by Taylor Russell (Bones and All) in this funny and intimate examination of love and ethics.

Lyttelton Theatre
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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Author

  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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