Nick Payne’s Constellations is a romance of sorts. It is about a man and a woman. He is a bee keeper. She is a cosmologist.
The two-hander was a big hit when it opened at the Royal Court studio theatre a few years ago before transferring to the West End, where it received the Evening Standard Award for Best Play. It is certainly snappy and often funny with characters that are likeable to the end. It’s easy to see why it won over audiences and critics alike. If I was left feeling satisfied rather than blown away, I will certainly admit the story explores love in a more complicated way than the usual rom-com.
Payne is said to have been inspired after seeing a TV documentary with American physicist Brian Greene which addressed the idea of a multiverse – a theory that our universe is attached to many others. The playwright illustrates the concept by presenting in 100 scenes, which fly past in 70 minutes, the boundless possibilities of one relationship. So boy meets girl, in this case, at a barbeque, where Marianne (Emma Palmer) tries to pick up Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) by challenging him to lick his elbow. We are then treated to several versions of the same scene. And so it goes, as the play charts the course of this coupling, these twenty-somethings, in one reality live happily together, in another break-up and then in yet another, never get to first base.
The work is cleverly constructed and the zapping between universes keeps you on your toes. It is technically a very demanding piece, with the actors required to subtlety alter their characters’ chemistry and worldview, sometimes within a few lines.
On Gez Xavier Mansfield’s minimalist set, Anthony Skuse directs Palmer and O’Sullivan, both engaging performers who nearly always do what it required of them, even if, on some occasions, I thought excessive indication was being passed off as real feeling.
Still overall I found it difficult to move beyond viewing this as anything but an extended acting exercise. I can’t say I developed a deep understanding of these people which is why I didn’t find the final scenes nearly as moving as those openly sobbing around me.
Payne is obviously a gifted writer and the punters loved it. I’m in the minority, I’m afraid.
Constellations is on at the Eternity Playhouse until 7 September.
Bookings: 02 8356 9987 or www.darlinghursttheatre.com