Constellations

Nick Payne
Royal Court Theatre
Trafalgar Studios 1

Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey Credit: Helen Maybanks
Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey Credit: Helen Maybanks
Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong Credit: Helen Maybanks

Having conquered the Royal Court, the West End and then Broadway, Nick Payne's deservedly much-lauded two-hander about love and quantum physics returns to London for what might just be a last hurrah.

In this touring version, the parts created by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall have been inherited by Louise Brealey of Sherlock repute and Joe Armstrong.

Michael Longhurst has had to simplify the staging from the early days Upstairs at the Royal Court, when it magically played in-the-round, involving viewers in the lives of Marianne and Roland with a degree of intimacy rarely possible on stage.

Trafalgar Studios 1 does not lend itself to such involvement but certainly those in the front few rows will manage to enjoy a rare rapport with the characters.

Once again, Tom Scutt’s design concept, in which numerous balloons of differing sizes hang suspended above and beside a honeycombed stage, gives the performance something of an extra-terrestrial feel.

What takes Constellations several degrees above numerous stage love stories is a novel idea. It stems from or is illuminated by the careers of Marianne, a quantum physicist researching in space theory, and Roland who has a more prosaic career as a beekeeper.

Within a minute of the play's opening, viewers realise that the pair are living out a sci-fi type theory that, at any time, there is an infinite number of versions of our lives going on in parallel universes.

Recognising this, the 70-minute drama shows anything up to five versions of each very short scene, beginning with meeting and wooing and ending with riffs on mortality.

Going a step further and following the scientific theory that time is either relative or a figment of our imaginations, the closing scene(s) intervene and are played out in a kind of rehearsal to break up the linearity and inject pathos.

This scheme allows Nick Payne to explore an affair and then partnership in amazing depth, using different versions to show how characters react. In this way, we build an intimate knowledge of their lives and characters, laughing and crying along the route.

Joe Armstrong and particularly Louise Brealey may not quite catch the virtuosity of the original pairing but they inhabit their characters convincingly in a variety of personas. In doing so, they ensure that viewers can empathise and quite possibly fall in love with their characters by the end of a deeply moving but at times funny performance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher