Choosing a play that has done incredibly well in the professional circuit can only ever fall into two camps – it’s either a rooky error or a masterful stroke. Boasting performances from Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill in its debut performance at the National Theatre this play, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect (2012), consisting of only four characters, leaves little room for error. It’s astounding therefore that university students at Bedlam engage with the text in such a sophisticated manner.
Perhaps the success of Louisa Doyle and Rufus Love’s cast is in part due to the current relevance of the play. Patients Connie (Kelechi Hafstad) and Tristan (Jerry Stileman) find themselves in the throws of passionate romance amidst a drug trial for a new anti-depressant. The lovers are forced to grapple with their feelings for one another and consider how sure they can be of its genuine nature as the drug infiltrates their systems. Though it must be acknowledged that it’s not that simple; with the addition of broader issues concerning mental health, this play becomes another thing entirely. It’s multifaceted. It’s about human nature in its most raw, instinctive state.
One of the excellent things about Prebble’s script is its balance of comedic wit and gritty emotion. The four strong cast did an admirable job of this task, often achieving both in the space of a sentence. The audience were as close to laughter as they were tears at any given moment. Niamh Kinane did a particularly good job of this as Lorna, the psychiatrist who suffers from depressive episodes. She both maintained the quick judgement of timing necessary to be truly funny as well as delivering fully in her most emotional scenes. This balance was further developed with the introduction of a clever, minimal set, which was predominantly changed by lights and projections. These in conjunction with music and sound created immersive spaces for the characters to exist within.
At first it seems that Toby (Thomas Noble), the more senior doctor, is playing a kind of filler role – Prebble’s way of getting important contextual issues across to the audience. This fear is quickly overcome both by narrative twists and Noble’s confident portrayal. He carefully adds subtle layers, which give the character more dimension and sensibility.
Of course this review could not come to any sort of conclusion without commenting on the chemistry between the two lovers. Hafstad and Stileman are electric together and move effortlessly, almost rhythmically, around the stage. There’s rarely something quite as brave as a sex scene at Bedlam and, well, it was as if no audience were present.
Sometimes when a play is this good there’s not much more that can be said than to congratulate the actors and team that brought it to fruition. This was always going to be a risky choice yet, goodness, how worth it some chances can be when taken.