Review: Constellations, Duke of York’s Theatre

What if there were an infinite number of outcomes for our lives, where every action and moment realigned us subtly but indefinitely. Nick Payne’s Constellations first appeared at the Royal Court Theatre and now heads into the West End for an eight week run at The Duke of York’s. Using string-theory and quantum mechanics as a device for exploring the relationship between Marianne (Sally Hawkins) and Roland (Rafe Spall), it is a play that repeats and realigns every few moments offering countless variations for the couple as they meet, fall in love, but ultimately the envitable course of their lives can’t be changed. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, Constellations is 70 minutes of pure theatrical joy.

As a device, it may sound strange to have a play that continually repeats itself, as if an old LP has caught on the turntable, but in Payne’s play it adds dimensions in which a relationship can be explored theatricality. A director instructs his or her actors that there are an infinite number of possibilities for the character to be explored: tonality; subtleties in gestures and actions; physicality as a whole. Payne’s Constellations offers director Michael Longhurst the chance to explore the various routes that the characters of Marianne and Roland can take, which is excellently achieved. It’s hilarious at times, witnesses the fumbling attempts at flirting and relationship making, and the heavy-heartedness as their relationship veers into uncertainty. Longhurst makes full use of Hawkins’s wonderful comic timing and velvety voice as she punches into the unknown of flirtation, whilst Spall’s Roland is sweet and tender with explosive sparks.

Given that Constellations has no defined setting, Tom Scutt’s design evokes the lighthearted and floating qualities that are felt between two people in a new relationship. White balloons suspended throughout the space are lit up like the synapses of the brain (lighting by Lee Curran), with messages firing back and forth during each potential moment and situation that Payne repeats. These episodes are underlaid with a crackling and popping, as if Constellations is plugged into the electricity of the Duke of York’s Theatre – this only increases the energy that sparks from the play.

The idea of string-theory, of quantum mechanics as a theatrical device or subject matter for a play, may seem like a daunting task for any audience member. When science collides with theatre the imagination required from the theatre-maker often propells the work new terrorities. A look at the young company Curious Directive, whose devised work maps neuroligical conditions or the mechanics of the body, shows that theatre can be acheived with science as its focus. The same could be said for Lucy Prebble’s latest piece The Effect, which has anti-depressants and the pysche of the human mind as the play’s central them. Payne’s Constellations goes to prove that the trend for science as a dramatic device doesn’t lead straight to boredom but can ignite and inspire.

With a joyous cast (there really is no faulting Hawkins and Spall’s characters), and simple but thoroughly effective direction from Longhurst, Constellations really is worth the hype. Bringing big themes to something as tangible as a relationship, Payne creates a play that is truly remarkable and accessible. This West End transfer is one that should not be missed; go, relish in its happiness, and shed a tear when it all falls apart. Cathartic and hopeful, this is theatre at its best.

 Originally published on A Younger Theatre.