Review: Constellations, Duke of York’s ✭✭✭✭✭

Nick Payne’s Constellations must be one of the most beautiful and mesmerising short plays on the West End. It is a play that shows clear genius on all fronts – design, direction, writing, and performance.

Payne fits more into his one-hour play than most plays manage in three. It is written with an astonishing intellect, and encompasses a large number of complex ideas – from multiverse theory to freewill via human mortality – but does so with a real emotional heart. He mixes quantum theory with a boy-meets-girl romance in a way that defies all expectations.

The play has only two characters, but infinite possibilities. Roland, played by the wonderful Rafe Spall, is a mellow but charming beekeeper who meets Marianne, a captivating Sally Hawkins, at a barbeque. She is an academic in the field of quantum cosmology at Sussex University. Spall and Hawkins are beautifully matched;  both give extraordinarily dynamic performances that encompass the radiating humanity of the characters’ “infinite possibilities”. Hawkins handles the intricacies of the struggling academic with unfaltering tenderness and poignancy while Spall succeeds in making an ordinary ‘good guy’ just as enthralling as Hawkins’ intellectual.

Director Michael Longhurst, with a wonderfully inventive creative team, has created a magnificent production.

At one point Marianne explains the multiverse theory; “every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”. Payne, in a stroke of brilliance, puts this theory into action. He episodically builds the relationship based on various key encounters, and each time we see many different realitiesbased on varying factors such as previous relationships, levels of intoxication – even  tone of voice. Through the heart of the often hilariously juxtaposed repetitions is the electric pulse of real human pain, and this is what makes this play so exhilarating.

Director Michael Longhurst, with a wonderfully inventive creative team, has created a magnificent production. With a delightfully playful atmosphere, it is just as funny and proverbial as it is intellectually complex. There is a particular fluidity about the two actors  that makes the repetitions seem spontaneous and extemporary. Underpinning the lively mood is a thread of heart-wrenching, aching emotional rawness, which is beautifully crafted.

Tom Scutt’s design is incredibly striking. The stage is filled with hovering white balloons that variously illuminate in each variation of a scene; perhaps each balloon is a different universe. It is an astonishingly exquisite set design that balances the grandeur and mystery of the multiverse with simple, recognisable human emotion – juxtaposing the everyday with the extraordinary in a masterstroke of design.  Lee Curran’s superb lighting with Simon Slater’s haunting music and David McSeveney’s subtly ethereal sound design, alongside Scutt’s set, make Constellations a spine-tinglingly beautiful production.

Payne’s Constellations is profoundly moving. It is an astonishing new play from an incredibly talented writer who has cemented his reputation as being one of, if not the best contemporary British writers. Longhurst’s production has a vitality and immediacy to it that makes it dazzlingly special. It is not to be missed.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 5th January
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