views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Trafalgar Studios
14th July 2015


Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey as Roland and Marianne

Photography © Helen Maybanks

Life is so unpredictable, sometimes you may as well wish upon a star for all the good that planning will do you. One missed train can change your life - oh, wait, there's already been a film about that. In Nick Payne's play Constellations, which has transferred to Trafalgar Studios from a successful run at The Royal Court, a slightly awkward Marianne (Louise Brealey) meets a far more relaxed, easy-going fella called Roland (Joe Armstrong) at a barbecue. It's one chance interaction which has the potential to play out in so many ways - indeed we see many of those other possible timelines unfold. Another Roland could dismiss her as weird, or step back because he was taken; but this Roland, our Marianne's Roland, he sees her quirkiness as endearing and their unexpected encounter does change their lives forever. Never mind sliding doors, it's all about washed out barbies.

The opening scenes are deliberately repetitive, evoking memories of Groundhog Day, that film you bought on VHS (oh yeah, remember tape?) and could only bring yourself to watch once, because by the end you felt like you'd seen it so many times already. Bear with Constellations. Trust me on this. There's one glorious epiphany where the penny in the air drops and we understand completely where Payne is taking us and why it's taken so long to reach where are then. Every little thing we questioned in the writing or direction suddenly becomes imbued with meaning and feels so appropriate. It's almost like director Michael Longhurst gently takes us all to one side and explains that the play is more intelligent than we are, but not to worry, that's normal.

Ordinarily a production which makes me feel stupid isn't one I'd recommend, but in this wonderful moment of recognition, there's not a scrap of hurt pride, only an extraordinary sense of privilege. Constellations is a beautiful and thoughtful piece of writing and if it takes a little while to appreciate this, so be it. The payoff is definitely worth it, and given the big issues Payne covers, feeling a bit smaller than usual actually heightens the emotional reaction to the developments in the plot. Humans, we're capable of so very much, but sometimes, absolutely nothing at all. Accepting that our fate is written in the stars is hard for a race of overachievers.

It's horribly difficult to talk about the show without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say, Brealey and Armstrong do a magnificent job of the likely unlikely couple. A quantum cosmologist and an urban beekeeper? Really? Well, the two personalities complement each other wonderfully. You might think initially Brealey is channeling Molly Hooper with her uncomfortable mannerisms - spotting her pal Benedict Cumberbatch in the audience probably doesn't help - but over the course of the 70 minutes, again, your early thoughts are subverted. Brealey delivers a breathtakingly powerful performance, ably supported by Armstrong. You may not cry, but you will certainly feel like someone has punched you in the gut for a very long time afterwards.

Tom Scutt's design is immediately attractive, but relatively pared back for a West End show. The tiled raised stage mirrors the honeycomb of Roland's beekeeping activities and the globes suspended from the ceiling are carefree balloons, emphasising Marianne's playful and more innocent side. As time marches on, nothing really changes, but the design becomes far more significant. The honeycomb patterns become skeletal formulae, and the balloons stylised neurons, particularly with the quick bursts of noise and colour from sound designer David McSeveney and lighting designer Lee Curran. There's something brief, almost electric - human biology changing in front of us. Like the writing, the design too is multilayered.

Constellations is clever, poignant and worthy of more than just one watch. Sometimes it's a real honour to see theatre - yes, there are lots of different possibilities for what might happen on stage, that's live performance for you - but it would be impossible to see this show and not be moved. A stunning production which shines so brightly.

Constellations opened on 9th July and runs until 1st August 2015 at Trafalgar Studios.

Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)

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