Theatre review: The Effect at the Cottesloe Theatre

Enron playwright Lucy Preble and director Ruper Goold team up again in riveting drama about clinical drug trial gone wrong, starring Billie Piper

One wouldn’t ordinarily expect romance to blossom in the cold, controlled setting of a clinical trial, yet that’s what happens in this riveting new drama from the duo behind 2009 hit Enron.

Love and science are cleverly weaved together in playwright Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold’s tale of a drugs trial gone wrong, where two subjects find themselves in a frenzied and intense courtship, while the testers barely have their own emotions better under control.

It stars a sterling cast of four led by Billie Piper, who Prebble worked with on TV show Secret Diary of a Call Girl, as psychology student Connie and one of the lovestruck pair along with funny, boisterous trial veteran Tristan, played by Jonjo O’Neill.

Locked in the clinic together as guinea pigs for a new batch of antidepressants, they become emotionally entangled – but is it the drug boosting their moods, or the first flushes of love?

Goold is known for his inventive staging and he uses the National’s smallest space, the Cottesloe Theatre, brilliantly. Music and visuals combine to create an almost science fiction feel, as grids of light strobe across the stage and the subjects’ readings flash up on screens.

The superb cast is completed by Anastasia Hille, excellent as the clever but vulnerable lead doctor Lorna, and Tom Goodman-Hill as her boss Toby. Theirs is another tense relationship, with a tussle between Lorna’s scepticism and Toby’s fervent evangelism over merits of these pills.

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The Effect is never weighed down by its heavy themes – the value of antidepressants, the science behind love – handling them deftly, while giving the audience plenty to chew on. This is an excellent play, breaking free from its claustrophobic setup to produce a gripping evening.

* The Effect is at the Cottesloe Theatre, South Bank, SE1, until February 23. Box office 020 7452 3000.