Nick Payne’s play – the last of three to transfer from the Royal Court to the West End – is an amusing and often deeply moving love story, which combines elements of romantic comedy with a more metaphysical underpinning.
Although inevitably some of the intimacy of the two-hander has been lost in moving it from an in-the-round staging at the Theatre Upstairs to the proscenium-arch Duke of York’s, the show’s multiple short scenes still have the capacity to dazzle like a meteor shower.
The production’s tagline “One relationship, infinite possibilities” is, for once, a concisely accurate description of Payne’s ingenious attempt to embody multiverse theory in human terms. The idea that every choice we do or don’t make exists in innumerable parallel universes is applied to Marianne and Roland, as we see various permutations of how they first meet, start dating, get married, have affairs, split up, reunite and face together the prospect of terminal illness.
The cue comes from Marianne’s occupation as a cosmologist at Sussex University, as she tries to explain to the more down-to-earth Roland her fascination with the potential of limitless alternatives. As a beekeeper, he is more concerned with finding his dedicated role in life like the bees he looks after: “If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing.”
Constellations might not have the intellectual weight of some plays dealing with similarly themes – works by Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn which also draw on theoretical physics for inspiration – but the wider philosophical context gives this specific relationship an archetypal force. The play is not merely a dry academic exercise because we really do feel this is a flesh-and-blood partnership, as it evolves engagingly from early comic misunderstandings to a movingly tender mutual dependence.
Michael Longhurst’s direction gives equal weight to each scenelet, divided by a crackling electrical charge to indicate a slight variation in the direction of energy. Tom Scutt’s design of white helium balloons above and behind the stage, lit in ever-changing colours by Lee Curran, suggest heavenly bodies of the solar system, with balloons dropping to the ground as options start to dwindle.
Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall both give star performances, sometimes repeating text verbatim but with modified emphasis and tone to give a very different emotional impact, or altering body language to convey other reactions. Hawkins, who can be mannered as a film actress, here is wonderfully versatile in showing subtle quicksilver shifts in mood, while the more understated Spall complements her perfectly with his appealingly awkward uncertainty. In a kaleidoscopic succession of apparently random occurrences, the growing warmth of their characters’ attachment makes them the centre of their own world.