Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Constellations, Royal Court

Review: Constellations, Royal Court

You can’t have a love story without the right click. The same holds true for this review.

(UPDATE: I know this undermines the mystery, but tips are to use new tabs and go looking for the right text, but notice where you are. Some threads are longer than you might think.)

As dramatic settings go, the multiverse is a damn sight more ambitious than most. Over the course of its 65 minutes, Nick Payne’s Constellations zaps between parallel universes to tell the stories of Roland and Marianne’s relationship.

Roland’s a beekeeper. Marianne’s a quantum physicist. They meet at a rainy barbecue, when Marianne charges up to Nick with an inane chat up line about the impossibility of licking your elbows. He rejects her outright. “I’m in a relationship. So. Yeah.” Then. Zap. Another barbecue, another attempt. “I’ve just come out of a really serious relationship. So. Yeah.” Zap. Another turns out to be married. Zap. And so on. At first, while we’re still unaccustomed to his rules, Payne dupes us into thinking this is something Marianne says to all the boys, but it soon becomes apparent that these are all different Rolands. This one’s too hot; this one, too cold; until eventually, one’s just right.

Going forwards, we see multiple versions of various pivotal moments in their relationship – from first dates through to proposals and beyond. The structure has it’s own parallels in Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges.

Constellations is, essentially, a good old fashioned postmodern romantic comedy. Rom-coms have their dramatic tension in the question, “Will they or won’t they?” Ultimately, we know that yes, in the end, they will, inevitably, live happily ever after, but the game is in the obstacles that get in the way. Payne’s multiverse allows the possibility for both at the same time. He can take us down dead ends, missed opportunities and vicious break ups, safe in the knowledge that, in another universe, everything is going swimmingly.

Payne’s subject is the impossibility of total control. Everything here is contingent: every decision, responsive; every happy ending as sweet and brittle as honeycomb. In this, language becomes central. Even something as unthinking as word selection, which brings the most minute shift of meaning, can, like the butterfly flapping earthquakes into being, have a significant impact. Not for nothing does Marianne lose the ability to find the right word towards the end. Payne also suggests that we are, to some extent, pre-destined; programmed to suffer certain illnesses or, like the ’umble ‘oney bee, to wind up with the same partner whatever happens.

Emotionally supple and engaging throughout, Michael Longhurst’s production goes a long way to covering the text’s shortcomings. At its heart are two blissfully easy performances from Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins. Spall is tender, gangly and emotionally bunged up as Roland, while Hawkins is, by her very nature, the perfect rom-com actress. She is just as awkward as we all feel, but still attractive and likeable to the end. Tom Scutt’s elegant design – a honeycomb floor with a cluster of white balloons above – is full of resonance, suggesting everything from thunderclouds to stars, molecules to brain matter, celebrations to dreams.

Smart and delicate, Constellations ultimately falls short of its considerable ambition. It reaches for the stars and, though heavenly, doesn’t quite get there. (Zap.)

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