Constellations ( Maxwell Martin/O’Dowd) – Donmar Warehouse

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer: Nick Payne

Director: Michael Longhurst

Revived earlier this year with four different casts, Nick Payne’s play Constellations extends its run with a digital stream.

The play explores a relationship between two people, Marianne (played here by Anna Maxwell Martin) and Roland (Chris O’Dowd). But instead of chronologically moving through the different stages of a romantic relationship, Constellations imagines every possible future for the couple. Marianne and Roland meet by chance at a friend’s barbecue. Marianne works as a cosmologist, and explains to Roland that there is a scientific theory that multiple universes exist. Roland baulks at the ascension of Marianne’s small talk, but Payne’s play shows us exactly that. Constellations asks the same question – what happens when these two people meet – and gives us multiple answers.

Payne has great fun with the idea, especially at the beginning. Marianne starts a conversation, but Roland cuts her dead. In other scenes, Roland feels an immediate interest in Marianne, and they begin to chat. Potential relationships falter, some blossom, with Marianne and Roland immersing themselves in each other’s lives.

Payne’s script explores romance – even at this embryonic stage – with layer upon layer of nuance and misread signals. The slightest change, as the scenes unfold, is almost imperceptible – the difference between connection and getting the cold shoulder is in the tiniest, atom-like detail. Payne’s structuring of Constellations is so skilfully and delicately done, the scenes flutter by – some are mere moments, others self-contained acts. Its Sliding Doors concept has the potential to be gimmicky, but the stylisation that Payne brings, elevates the multiverse idea into something rare and poetic.

In a space without scenery, or any other devices, the way Constellations shifts not through time, but through emotion, is in its lighting. Designed by Lee Curran, a cluster of balloons hang over Roland and Marianne. They act as a signpost, with the balloons changing colour as the scenes alter in tone and perspective.

With little else on stage, our attention is pinned on the actors’ performances. Maxwell Martin and O’Dowd take the scrutiny with ease. Their experience in television and theatre works well, as the filming of Constellations creates a balance between the spontaneity of live performance, and the intensity of the camera’s gaze. Maxwell Martin slightly has the edge, as her character feels more consistent, giving us something to hang onto. O’Dowd utilises his comedy skills to bring warmth, but Roland feels less developed, and with a production that hinges on just two characters, that is a problem when we get to the more emotionally-charged scenes.

Constellations may start off as a scientific experiment, but as we move through the permeations of Marianne and Roland, their stories become darker and our stake in what happens is that much greater. Payne’s multiverse romance questions our tendency to create linear narrative, as everything we are seeing is equally viable.

The play, in its revival, remains an emotional heavy-hitter – not least in its commentary on the fragility of connection. What could happen, what might happen: possibility has never felt more seductive.

Available here until 29 November 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Multiverse romance

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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