Sometimes, when all you hear of a play is amazing reviews, it can seem a bit too good to be true. I've yet to hear anyone say a bad word about Constellations, directed by Michael Longhurst and recently arrived back in the West End at Trafalgar Studios after a UK tour - and this made me simultaneously desperate to see it and anxious that it wouldn't live up to my towering expectations. But as it turns out, I needn't have worried.
A quick summary: Roland and Marianne meet at a barbecue. She attempts small talk. It goes badly. And - at the same time - it goes really well.
They go on a date, and Marianne asks Roland back to her place. Then she throws him out. And - at the same time - asks him to stay.
Confused? Let me explain.
Nick Payne’s Constellations is a romantic comedy with added physics, considering a world in which every situation has infinite possible outcomes. Each scene is played several times, but each time it goes a little differently. Sometimes the change is so subtle you almost don’t notice it; other times the difference is life-altering. And all these stories are being played out at the same time, in a multiverse – which begs the question, if everything we do has every possible outcome, does that mean we’re not really choosing our path through life at all?
This might sound a bit scary and intelligent, especially if – like me – you’re the kind of person whose only knowledge of physics comes from watching The Big Bang Theory. But don’t let that put you off, because Constellations is also warm and funny, with characters and situations you can totally relate to: the first date, ballroom dancing lessons, arguments, and conversations about life, the universe and everything. Louise Brealey perfectly captures the awkwardness and vulnerability of Marianne, a woman battling to stay in control of her life at all costs, while Joe Armstrong is instantly likeable as happy-go-lucky beekeeper, Roland.
The two actors have the exhausting task of repeating the same lines over and over whilst keeping the performance fresh. And they totally pull it off - repetitive the script may be, but dull it certainly isn’t. It’s not like they even have any props to work with; designer Tom Scutt's set is a completely bare stage, lit from above by white orbs that seem to float over the actors' heads as if they really are in space.
As you might expect in a play that deals with free will versus inevitability, events ultimately take a darker turn, and it’s here that Lee Curran’s lighting really comes into its own. Fizzing and sparking, it perfectly personifies the couple’s panic as events are taken out of their hands by a situation far more threatening than an unproven theory of parallel worlds.
Perhaps in another universe, Constellations is a terrible play. But not in this one, because the show I saw more than lived up to the rave reviews. It’s moving, charming and funny, but with an intellectual edge that makes you really think about what you’re watching (something that’s missing from most romantic comedies, let’s be honest), and showcasing the talents of two incredible actors. Don’t miss your chance to see this brilliant play before it’s too late.
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