Feeling depressed about the state of British theatre? Lying awake worried about the lack of good new writing? Don't take a pill -- just cadge a ticket for this terrific new play by Lucy Prebble and you will feel as right as rain.
Lucy Prebble wrote Enron, a play that would have swept all the dramatic honours going if it hadn't come along in the same year as Jerusalem. Her new play The Effect is a sellout at the National Theatre's Cottesloe stage before public booking has even begun, and the buzz is fully justified. I was lucky to snap up a single ticket for a matinee during the advance booking period, thanks to a helpful tip on the phone from the box office. It's probably the best new play I've seen this year -- emotionally engaging, intellectually stimulating and directed with great delicacy by Rupert Goold for Headlong.
Delicacy isn't normally a word one associates with Goold, who has a tendency to lay on the theatrical effects with a trowel. But here he is a model of restraint, allowing the many virtues of Prebble's play to speak for themselves. It's a four-hander set in a medical research suite where paid volunteers come for extended trials of new drugs. Miriam Buether's set is a rectangle a bit like a tennis court, surrounded by yellow-green banquettes and waiting-room paraphernalia -- a giant goldfish bowl, a rack of travel magazines and a projected sign proclaiming 'Raushen Pharmaceutical Clinical Trials'.
Tristan, a happy-go-lucky young man from Northern Ireland, meets Connie, a slightly prim middle-class psychology student from Basingstoke. The two volunteers fall in love, but their relationship is threatened by the uncertainty generated by their situation; is the chemistry between them the result of the pills they are taking, or something real? They are supervised by two doctors, a woman psychiatrist who has suffered depression herself, and a pompous male drug company research boss. Structurally, this play is a classic, very reminiscent in its medical setting to Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange. Prebble eases into the story gently, beginning with the moment the triallists arrive, provide urine samples and change into white sports clothes like gymnasts. There's just enough backstory and exposition to set the story in motion, satisfying our curiosity just enough to leave us wanting to know more about these people. Prebble knows how to blend crisp dialogue and monologue and how to set up dramatic irony by feeding the audience key pieces of information of which the characters are unaware. Much of the story hangs on the uncertainty over whether which of the couple is taking a placebo rather than a real drug.
On one level, stripping out the intellectual debate about the human brain and the setting, this is a beautifully told story of a relationship between two young people who fall in love. They move from initial wariness, at least on Connie's side, to flirtation, joint flouting of the rules, to intense and joyful physical intimacy, then sudden hostility, and finally to a Shakespearean sense of reconciliation and acceptance of loss. The story is written and directed with great tenderness and delicacy, and without a single verbal or physical cliche. The closing scenes of both the first and second acts are particularly brilliant, as is the scene when both triallists are being questioned simultaneously but separately by the woman doctor.
The relationship between the two older doctors gradually emerges as a counterpoint; when they come into conflict, it's just as much personal as professional. Prebble blends the two stories together with the intellectual puzzle of how the brain really works; is it really all just chemistry, neurons and pheromones, or is human consciousness something else? In the programme, science writer Steven Poole lambasts the 'hucksters of neuroscientism' for overselling the little that they really know about how the brain works. But Prebble's play is more nuanced; it never loses sight of the fact that depression can be a terrible illness, and it can be made better by drugs.
Billie Piper and Jonjo O'Neill are both outstanding as the young lovers, while Tom Goodman-Hill lends a ruthless touch to the role of the drug company researcher. For my money, however, the absolute standout performance comes from Anastasia Hille as the damaged and depressive woman doctor. I've seen her on stage quite a lot, and this is unquestionably the best I have seen her do.
It's worth mentioning that while the National Theatre can justifiably be proud of staging this production, the emergence of Lucy Prebble as a major talent owes more to the work of the Royal Court, which also developed the work of Laura Wade (Posh) and Polly Stenham (That Face). Put those three outstanding young writers together with Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem), and you have to acknowledge that Sloane Square, not the South Bank, is the place that sets the standard for new stage writing in the 21st century. None of them are cutting-edge modernists who are trying to reinvent the business of theatre; what they are all delivering is a modern version of what used to be called 'the well-made play' -- intellectually sharp, challenging and imaginative, with a great technical grasp of what makes great drama.