Paapa Essiedu Finds Chemistry in the Play ‘The Effect’


Five months before Paapa Essiedu took the stage as a flirty clinical-trial participant in The Effect, he attempted to run a half marathon in southwest England. After going “too high and too fast,” Essiedu says he collapsed due to extreme hydration and low blood sugar levels. He remembers waking up in the hospital, his legs in extreme pain, in a post-traumatic amnesia state. 

Essiedu found a way to use that half-marathon black-out, reenacting his confused state before a live audience six days a week during a recent run of Lucy Prebble’s critically acclaimed play, which follows the drug-induced romance between two clinical drug trial volunteers Tristan (Essiedu) and Connie (Bones and All’s Taylor Russell). Eventually Tristian —dizzied from increasing doses of the administered medication and his revving attraction to Connie — experiences a seizure and suffers severe memory loss. 

“That’s something that prepares you in a way that you couldn’t prepare by reading a book or watching a YouTube video or even talking to someone,” Essiedu tells Rolling Stone, of passing out mid-race. “There’s something about the literal experience that leaves a deep impression on you.”

Critics have praised Essiedu’s “roguish charm” that “wins over the audience within minutes” and have celebrated the chemistry between him and his co-star. Essiedu says he and Russell dug deep to replicate the head over heels feeling of love on stage. 

“She’s just got unbelievable availability and access to vulnerability and courage,” Essiedu says of Russell. “Obviously, what we have to create together is very delicate and dangerous, but it was pretty easy from the beginning.

The East London actor first cut his teeth in the theater, becoming the first Black actor to play Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2016. His breakout performance came in 2020 with a leading role in Michaela Coel’s HBO drama, I May Destroy You. The 33-year-old actor also starred in the British science fiction show, The Lazarus Project, and in an apocalyptic episode (“Demon 79”) of Black Mirror last year, which Essiedu called a bucket-list acting role. 

When The Effect first debuted in 2012 at the National Theater in London, followed by a New York run at the Barrow Street Theater in 2016, it featured an all-white cast. But that changed for the play’s 2023 revival in London and this four-week engagement in New York, which wraps up on Sunday. Essiedu says that The Effect’s current, all-Black cast allows for nuanced discussions around mental illness within the Black community. 

“There’s a whole historical context on drugs being illegally or unsafely tried out upon the Black community disproportionately,” Essiedu says. “So, I think that’s another thing that changes as you look at this production in comparison to the original production where it was an all white cast.” 

Playwright Prebble — a writer and executive producer on the HBO sensation Succession —  tells Rolling Stone that it was important that the new staging of her 2012 play reflect today’s more open discussions around mental illness. 

“There’s still a great deal of stigma attached to mental health for a lot of people, but there’s been a move in how it’s discussed in society and I wanted the play to reflect that and not to feel dated,” Prebble says. 

Prebble, who compares adapting her play to tailoring a suit for a client, says she prefers to reshape the script around how the casted actors’ speak, behave, and feel. In the new staging the character of Tristan is an East Londoner — as is Essiedu – who woos Connie with dance moves inspired by rappers Childish Gambino and Tyler, the Creator, while original Tristan performed an Irish tap dance.

By the play’s end, Connie and Tristan, bonded by their whirlwind chemical romance leave the trial together. Some audiences see Connie’s efforts to rehabilitate Tristan as a grim ending, whereas others look optimistically to their new life together. 

“You can do it one way, one day and a different way, another day and the audience will still respond to it as long as it is truthful,” Essiedu says. 

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It’s a brilliant, compelling performance by Essiedu and Russell, Prebble says, and although the two actors don’t fall in love in real life, she says that over the play’s 12-year history some cast and crew members have formed love affairs. 

“If you make people enact physical things, emotional scenes of love over and over again … they eventually, sometimes, make it real because that’s what our bodies do,” Prebble says. “Babies have been born out of this play.”



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