Writer: Nick Payne
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Chris Oldham
Finding new ways to tell an old story can be tricky – often tired – especially when it comes to love. How many times can we witness “boy meets girl, boy falls for girl’s quirky charms” without feeling like we’ve seen it all before? With Constellations writer Nick Payne is determined to prove that we’re not done yet. The results are captivating.
Working on the multi-verse theory that the universe is made up of infinite layers of the paths we did and didn’t take, and the choices we did and didn’t make, the play visits several different moments in the lives of Marianne (Louise Brealey) and Roland (Joe Armstrong), in several different time lines, from their first meeting at a mutual friend’s barbecue where Marianne fails to impress with her anecdote about elbows, to a rather less chirpy turn of events that we catch a glimpse of early on.
Told linearly the story takes a fairly standard route, however the joy here comes from the pieces of the puzzle being scattered in front of us in a jumble. Soon we’re jumping all over the place, trying to keep up while spotting the differences in the same scenarios – sometimes the tiniest of inflections, others a complete character reversal.
Tom Scutt’s dreamlike, ethereal stage design sees scores of different sized balloons floating just above the character’s heads. In the moments of time-shift they flash and strobe, merging with the actors’ movements and making for a technically brilliant spectacle.
It’s not all just flashy effects though. Underpinned by an understated score by Simon Slater and haunting, echoing sound by David McSeveney, Payne’s script runs for 70 straight minutes, forcing the audience to sink or swim with it. When we’re there, we’re triumphant, intelligent, when we’re not, we’re running to catch up, desperate not to lose track before the next jump.
Brealey and Armstrong make for a natural, impressive pair. Marianne comes across as rather twee to begin with but it turns out that’s only one version of her. In another time she can be awkward, funny, biting, sometimes cruel. Meanwhile Roland is a steady, charming everyman, who isn’t completely immune from his own moments of darkness. The sheer volume of material the actors are charged with often gets overshadowed by their ability to draw us into each moment, resetting their emotions at the flash of a balloon. They’re funny too, at times extremely, and yet the laughter never feels out of place alongside the more intense scenes.
While tragedy looms in the shadows there is oddly nothing tragic about Constellations. Rather, even after the final balloons have fallen, it’s a distinct feeling of hope, not loss, that we’re left with to see us home.
Runs until Saturday 30th May 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Helen Maybanks.