Sex with drugs: it’s an audience magnet as old as the hills. Donizetti knew it. “Enron” author Lucy Prebble works it like a charm too.
“The Effect,” Prebble’s new play at London’s Cottesloe Theatre, is set in a clinical center for drugs trials. Two young healthy trialists, Connie and Tristan, sign up to take an experimental anti-depressant, which soon appears to promote euphoric palpitations, excitement and sweating in both of them. Great. It’s just what the doctors were hoping for.
Or could it be that Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill) and Connie (Billie Piper) are simply falling in love, and their brains are producing the same effects naturally?
Or, more complicated yet, perhaps their love is an illusory reaction to the drug’s physical side-effects?
When we learn that one of them may be taking a placebo, the story takes yet another sharp turn.
Prebble is once again bang on the money in her choice of topical subject matter, and she creates a terrifically smart plot in which to explore neuroscience and neurobabble. What’s the relationship between the gray jelly in our skulls, and our deepest hopes and fears? Is there a ghost in the machine?
By calling her chief male protagonist Tristan, and linking him to the most famous love-potion of all time, she slyly slots her story into a grand tradition of romance, too.
For all the cleverness of the plot, the emotions are never less than real. The scene in which the happy-go-lucky charmer Tristan and the sharp, analytical Connie eventually declare their love, is funny, meaty and moving.
There’s even a sprinkling of Hollywood stardust when Jonjo O’Neill bursts into an exuberant tap routine to impress his beloved. It’s a delightful touch from director Rupert Goold, and both O’Neill and Piper are marvelous in their roles.
One of the plot twists in the second half -- I won’t give it away -- sacrifices a slight percentage of plausibility, which is a shame. Never mind. It gives the excellent Anastasia Hille, as one of the trial doctors, the chance to deliver a powerful monologue about the self-lacerating effects of depression.
In the form of a lecture to the audience, she holds up a sloppy brain and describes its functions with medical precision. It looks just like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.
The doctor is severely depressive, and she begins to imagine that the brain is her own. It criticizes her: it even seems to hate her. She tries to argue with it, and it taunts her further. It’s as moving a representation of mental illness and breakdown as I’ve seen.
The set creates the atmosphere of a clinic with the simplest of means, just a few box-like seats and a carpet. In a neat touch, the audience sits around the action among office-like tables and cupboards too. It’s as if we’re medical observers. Or perhaps participants, waiting for our turn in the next trial. Rating: *****.
The story of Tristan also pops up in Donizetti’s masterpiece “L’elisir d’amore,” currently in repertoire at the Royal Opera. The wealthy and coquettish heroine Adina (Aleksandra Kurzak) recounts the tale of Isolde’s love potion in her first number.
It inspires the lovelorn Nemorino to find a love-drug to work the same magic on Adina. A travelling quack doctor (Ambrogio Maestri) palms the gullible lad off with a bottle of Bordeaux.
Tenor Roberto Alagna makes a delightful Nemorino. His initial gaucheness and desperation are amusing, not irritating, and his developing confidence as he begins to believe in the elixir is handled with a real flair for comedy.
If his open, ringing voice shows a few signs of strain, he still pulls out all the stops for a heartfelt account of his big aria “Una furtiva lagrima.”
Kurzak and Maestri both have more consistent beauty of tone, though neither acts as well as Alagna. It slows the flow of comedy sometimes, as does Bruno Campanella’s unfocussed conducting.
Laurent Pelly’s production, set in a poor Italian village in the 1950s, allows plenty of scope for character-based comedy. Alagna makes the most of it, and shows all the others how it should be done. Rating: ***.
“The Effect” is in repertory at the National Theatre. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
“L’elisir d’amore” is in repertory at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars)Worthless
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on history.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)