Constellations – Theatre Royal, Brighton
Writer: Nick Payne
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Michael Hootman
Nick Payne’s play is in many respects a chamber piece: it has one-act, two characters and a 75-minute running time. Yet in its scope, its emotional and intellectual depth, it dwarfs many productions which run twice as long. Like Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia it’s a play of ideas which takes in free will, time’s arrow, quantum physics and the rather gruesome facts of bee-sex confidently in its stride. Unlike the Stoppard it manages to connect directly with the heart. For the first time in many years this jaded reviewer noticed his eyes secreting a strange fluid during its more emotional scenes.
Constellations charts the romance between the likeable blokey Roland (Joe Armstrong) and cosmologist Marianne (Louise Brealey). Yet the staging takes its cue from the multiverse explanation of quantum physics in which every choice we make, and those we don’t, co-exist. We therefore see each scene played out a number of times with subtle, and not so subtle, differences reflecting a small portion of the infinite number of ways they could happen. One of the many fascinating aspects of the play is the way it shows how whole lives can turn on something as subtle as a badly chosen word or using the wrong tone of voice. One key scene shows the aftermath of the confession of an affair, and demonstrates that there are probably enough ways of saying the same “sorry” – angrily, with remorse, with indifference, with defiance – to fill the entire multiverse.
The two performances are perfectly judged. There is something almost magical in the way that two actors and one beautifully designed set – a simple cluster of balloons – can produce something so enthralling. Armstrong conveys a real charm as a likeable everyman who is occasionally out of his depth when confronting the tragedy that makes up the backbone of the play’s narrative. But then again it’s hard to pin down characters when they can behave with such variability. When Roland strikes Marianne we find ourselves asking is that the “real” him, or simply some statistically unlikely version of events being played out.
Brealey gives a fine reading of an intellectually and emotionally more complex character. Occasionally awkward, she perhaps conforms to the popular idea of the slightly eccentric scientist. There’s a genuine chemistry between the leads which is vital because Constellations, as much as taking in some of the big ideas of physics and philosophy, is essentially a beautifully written love story. One which, despite its multiple unhappy endings, is a wonderfully uplifting piece of theatre.
Tour photo ¦ Continues until Saturday 4th July at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.