Nick Payne
Royal Court
Liverpool Playhouse

Joe Armstrong & Louise Brealey Credit: Helen Maybanks

Produced by the Royal Court, Constellations, Nick Payne’s Evening Standard award-winning one act two-hander, has drawn rave reviews from all quarters.

Payne’s ingenious, yet simple (well, relatively simple) twist on the tale of a relationship, turns on what is sometimes called ‘Many Worlds Theory’ or, as cosmologist, Marianne (Louise Brealey) explains to professional beekeeper, Roland (Joe Armstrong), “the possibility that we’re part of a multiverse.”

One implication of this, as Louise goes on to explain, being that in this “multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”.

For me, this is good news (well, kind of) for, in at least one of these universes, I have indeed scored the winning goal in a World Cup Final. In the case of Marianne and Roland, Payne presents key moments in their relationship playing out in several different universes. (Think Sliding Doors, viewed through a prism—more complex, more demanding, more rewarding).

In some of these universes, Marianne and Roland never get together. In other universes, they get together only to part. In still other universes, they get together again, sometimes happily. In some universes, a terrible fate awaits Marianne.

This rather brilliant concept stands or falls on the intelligence and versatility of the actors and the clear, firm hand of their director (Michael Longhurst). Scenes are repeated, several times over, with slight changes in dialogue, action and mood. These small changes can lead to vastly different outcomes.

The non-linear structure means that the audience has started to figure out how the play works before Marianne gives the theory (a wise choice). Brealey and Armstrong have a strong chemistry. We believe in them as a couple and feel a sense of regret when faced with those universes in which their paths diverge.

Armstrong’s apiarist is far from dim, but it’s a particular pleasure to see a play in which the female character is not only the more intelligent and articulate but is also not presented as nerdy, sexually-frustrated and emotionally-inept. In most of these universes (the ones we witness, anyway) Brealey’s Marianne is smart, energetic, sassy and, on occasion, joyously foul-mouthed.

Most of the Rolands that Armstrong delivers are solid, dependable and engagingly impressed by his lover’s intellect. You feel you could trust your life to him (well, most of hims).

This is top-rank acting from both Brealey and Armstrong.

Tom Scutt’s memorable set emphasises the ever-changing moods of the piece, whilst also referencing key elements of the script. Its symbiosis with Lee Curran’s technically aware and versatile lighting is one of the strengths of the production.

Some of the moments are less moving than they might be in a more conventional play. The depth to which our emotions can be stirred by sad events is unavoidably limited when we are constantly reminded that they might not happen anyway (not in this universe). This is less a complaint than an observation. Insofar as it is a weakness, it is amply compensated in so many other aspects of this rigorous production.

In other universes, it might not be worth dragging yourself out to the theatre for a seventy-minute piece. In this universe, it most certainly is.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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