Tuesday 18 December 2012

The Effect at the National, or, Yours Truly Wonders What Fellow Critics Are On

This show, I discovered on re-reviewing the reviews this morning, was even more overwhelmingly praised than I had thought. I cannot for the life of me think why. Of course, from my point of view it started with two big handicaps. The director was Rupert Goold, who has as yet failed to impress me, and the female lead was Billie Piper, who with my Doctor Who fan hat on made me grit my teeth in annoyance almost more than one or two particularly infamous companions of the classic series I could mention. Nevertheless, I retain, I hope, the capacity to have my prejudices overcome. Goold, Piper and their fellow collaborators largely failed to achieve this.

I didn't see Lucy Prebble's ENRON so I can't compare the two works, but this play for me committed a cardinal sin. It is a play about issues. Rather too many issues frankly including the nature of love, the morality of the drugs companies, the problems involved in tackling depression, or helping someone who is suffering from depression. These issues require a great deal of talk. Now I like a play with a message (see 55 Days or the best of Shaw when he's well done), but Prebble makes the mistake of sacrificing character for issues. The result was one which I have remarked on before and which is usually fatal for me in terms of my view of a piece, apart from one or two fleeting moments I didn't give a damn about any of the people on stage. I would also note that very similar subject matter has been far more effectively treated in the musical Next to Normal which sadly never made it to London.

The performers are nothing to write home about either. They're all perfectly solid, but nothing really leapt out and took me by the throat, though it is only fair to say they aren't helped by the material. Piper and Anastasia Hille as the depressed doctor have moments which do suggest that with a better script they could really shine, but it's not enough to save the evening.

And then we come to the production. I don't think I've seen the much talked of Headlong in action before, and on the back of this I cannot see what is special about their approach. They're described in the programme as making “exhilarating, risk-taking and provocative new work” - readers will perhaps have gathered that I would only apply the last two words to this show. The Cottesloe transformation on this occasion doesn't compare with recent work such as This House or The Curious Incident. There's flashing lights and video screens which Marianne Elliott used to much better effect in the latter. There's nothing wrong per se with Goold's management of his personnel on stage, but as with everything else about this piece it isn't anything to write home about either.

In short this is a long, dull evening to be avoided, and yours truly remains a sceptic about the merits of Rupert Goold.

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