Writer: Nick Payne
Director: Michael Longhurst
Hot on the heels of the announcement that an all-male couple will be competing on Strictly Comes Dancing, comes an all-male pairing in Nick Payne’s stellar romance Constellations. It’s 2021, so, hopefully, the reaction to both items of news will be “so what?”, leaving us to get on with enjoying the performances and seeing what the judges make of them.
Michael Longhurst, now Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, directed the world premiere production of Payne’s play at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012, later transferring it to the West End and Broadway. The play, a two-hander, is being revived by Longhurst in four versions, of which this is one, with diverse pairs of actors taking on the roles, pointing to the universality of the writer’s themes.
Beekeeper Rodney and quantum cosmologist Manuel (Marianne in other versions) meet at a barbecue, then at a ballroom dancing class, forming an on/off relationship. This means both on and off, because Payne deploys the trick of repeating short scenes over and over to produce different resolutions, thereby answering the “what if?” question. This stuttering progression plays out something like Love Story meets Groundhog Day, supporting Manuel’s theory that everything in the cosmos has pre-determined and varying outcomes. Happily, the scientific gobbledygook is short and sweet, as the writer is concerned with speaking to the heart more than to the brain
Omari Douglas, fresh from success in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, plays Manuel as a vulnerable drama queen and Payne’s sharp, stinging dialogue suits his style perfectly. Russell Tovey’s “boring” Roland is the ideal foil for him and the actors’ timing of the quick fire comedy exchanges is impeccable. When the play is funny, this pair makes it very funny and, when it stops being funny, there appears a tender emotional bond, which is truly touching.
Running for barely 70 minutes, the play, already a modern classic, does not outstay its welcome. Longhurst’s production looks much the same as it did in 2012, with Tom Scutt’s set, consisting of a multitude of helium-filled balloons, illuminated by Lee Curran’s warm and glowing lighting design. Although the triumph of this version has more to do with chemistry than cosmology, Douglas and Tovey team up so naturally that it could have been written in the stars.
Runs until 11 September 2021