How the Cast of The Effect Put a New Spin on an 11-Year-Old Play | Playbill

Off-Broadway News How the Cast of The Effect Put a New Spin on an 11-Year-Old Play

The play had a hit run last year in London, and now it’s being performed at the Shed Off-Broadway with the original cast.

Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell in THE EFFECT Marc Brenner

What is love? Is love an overwhelming feeling that inspires plays and sonnets? Or is it just a surfeit of oxytocin being produced in the brain? And in Lucy Prebble’s popular play The Effect, what happens when people take medication that releases hormones that mimic love? Are their feelings real or is it a medical illusion? And how much of what happens in the brain affects the body? Those are some juicy questions to ponder, and for actor Michele Austin, who’s starring in the play in a current Off-Broadway run at The Shed, that’s been the most rewarding part of performing in it.

“Various people take away various things,” says Austin. “Some of the themes within it, about love and about depression and mental health and medication. It’s so prescient. I love the reactions afterwards—I’m genuinely interested in a lot of the conversations after the piece.”

The British actor last performed in The Effect in 2023, at the National Theatre in London. The entire cast of that play are now coming along with it as it’s been transferred to the states. When speaking to the four members of the cast, after a day of rehearsal, it was clear that they had established an ease and camaraderie with each other. Especially for Taylor Russell; The Effect was the first play the screen actor had ever done.

“It feels like a really inspiring environment to be in,” she says. “From the beginning, it really felt like we can all be very individual and have our own experiences of things, and it doesn't mean that one person’s opinion is better or right or more correct…Luckily, I was with super interesting people.” She also adds that because she’s Canadian, her British castmates have taught her a number of British slang words, which she could not say in the interview. “All of it is pretty dirty,” she says, smiling.

It’s a jovial group for what is a very serious and scientifically themed play. The Effect isn’t new. It first premiered at the National in 2012 starring Billie Piper, and was written by Prebble before she became a writer and executive producer on HBO’s Succession. It is a tidy four-hander about two drug trial participants (Russell and Paapa Essiedu) who fall in love, and who become uncertain whether their love is real or the product of the antidepressants they are taking. Meanwhile, the two doctors (Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) overseeing the trial struggle to get things back on track, especially because the two of them have a fraught relationship. 

The 2023 National production was so well-received that it’s now running Off-Broadway at The Shed until March 31.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith in THE EFFECT Marc Brenner

But this version is markedly different from previous productions in several key ways. For one, it now stars an all-Black cast. And it’s directed by Jamie Lloyd (of the upcoming Sunset Boulevard on Broadway) where the staging is more spare.

Prebble has worked with the cast to include new character details in the script that better match the actors. For instance, Holdbrook-Smith’s Doctor Sealey now has Nigerian ancestry. Russell’s character Connie is now Canadian, like the actor.

“Lucy asked us how we might deepen the connections to our Black British heritage—if there are any components in the lines of the play, in the structure, that we could point at,” explains Holdbrook-Smith, who was born in Ghana. “All she wanted to do, essentially, was beef up our characters’ personal histories, so that it was rooted in something more real for the character.”

Austin points out that the casting provides an additional nuance to the play. In the Black community, there is a distrust of the medical establishment, due to historic practices of scientific experimentation on Black people. So the questions that the characters raise, and their skepticism of the drug trial itself, comes from a true-to-life place. “There's a history of Black women being tested on against their will...we can't ignore it,” says Austin.

For example, in the show, Austin’s character Dr. James suffers from depression, but she refuses to medicate. When Dr. Sealey asks if it’s a political act, James bitterly responds with, “I’m a working-class Black woman, getting out of bed is a political act.” That line regularly engenders applause in the audience.

Because The Effect now has an all-Black cast, it allows the work to also explore classism within the Black British community, and how the Black community is not “a monolith,” says Austin. “There’s an assumption that we're all the same and we have all the same opinions and experiences, it's so frustrating. And it's so wonderful to be in a room with three different people having a completely different experience and showing that on stage. And I think audiences really appreciate that.”

Michele Austin in THE EFFECT Marc Brenner

This new version of The Effect is performed with practically no props, aside from a life-sized brain, which stands out like a totem against the bare stage. And all of these experienced actors had to stretch themselves and get used to the Jamie Lloyd way of working—where the simplicity gives way to a heightened attention to the text and the actors.

“I remember in the first week, our first rehearsal process, we had a lot of the props—we had the urine samples, we had the phones, we had, you know, bits and bobs,” recalls Essiedu. But little by little, the props that the actors got used to having disappeared, which at first was admittedly uncomfortable. “It felt like a kid who gets its toy taken away. But very quickly, it becomes very free, because you don't have to think about, ‘During that scene change, what am I going to do with the prop, am I going to hide in my pocket?’...It’s just, like, do the play, do the acting, focus on the relationships, focus on the person that you're talking to.”

For Essiedu, whose previous work includes the hit HBO miniseries I May Destroy You, this spare way of working has been freeing. The four members of the cast also are onstage almost the entire time. So even if they’re not in the scene, their presence is still there to help maintain the connection between the four characters. And so, it’s only natural that these three British actors, and one Canadian, are now moving with the show from London to New York. They’ve become a unit.

“In this show, we always kind of connect just before we begin and just after we ended the play. And I think that's a really important bookmark,” explains Essiedu, with his castmates nodding in agreement. “It is a kind of reminder for ourselves that we're not going through this story, or through this long arc, individually. We're doing it as a group, and therefore, we can hold each other and support each other.”

Photos: The National Theatre's THE EFFECT

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!