The Effect: A Clinical Fairytale

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The play digs deeply and provocatively into the mysteries of the mind, and also examines the nature of depressive illness.

Last Friday I went to see Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’ at the National Theatre. The initial intrigue lay in its promise to link ‘neurology and the limits of medicine’ with ‘romance’. It seems a difficult task for a playwright, or indeed any creative person, to strip away the external manifestations of love- which would normally be the artistic focus. Focussing instead on love’s significance as chemicals in the brain (a chief preoccupation of neurology) seems reductive, unfit to move and inspire an expectant audience. Would my prejudices be altered?

In any case, the masses rolled in for this ‘clinical romance’, some perhaps with the same curiosities that struck me, others more excited by the prospect of a naked Billie Piper. A five star review from the Telegraph probably helped their numbers along, not to mention Prebble’s enviable status as a 31 year old female playwright whose sell-out play ‘Enron’ has enjoyed time on both Broadway and on London’s West End.

The staging of the play was minimal, the set comprising predominantly of a pair of lurid yellow blocks which were continually moved around to form sofas, beds and examination tables. The costumes, similarly, were fairly low-key: the two testing patients, played by Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill, both wore white slouchy tracksuits. These were predictably clinical in appearance, but also reinforced the ‘Groundhog Day’ sense running through the play- same clothes, same pill swallowing, same intrusive testing.

What did develop throughout the play, however, was the pair’s feelings (largely for each other), and their increasing agitation towards the circumscribed environment that they had been placed in, and the high levels of dopamine that may or may not be pumping through their bloodstreams.

Over the course of the play, Prebble touched upon issues ranging from medical ethics to the plight of women in a professional sphere- all of which worked into the story seamlessly and enhanced its poignance. In the end, however, a good play is- as the cliche goes- one that leaves you questioning, and ‘The Effect’ did precisely this. Can we can attribute love, depression, or any extremes of emotions entirely to a ‘chemical imbalance’? Piper’s character, at the start of the play, seems all-too-ready to answer this in the affirmative, but Prebble’s touching conclusion suggests otherwise.

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