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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Constellations
Royal Court Theatre   January-February 2012; Duke of York's Theatre November-December 2012


NOVEMBER 2012:     Boy, was I wrong. You may want to read my original review, below, of Nick Payne's play at its Royal Court premiere earlier this year, but you can skip it. 

Either the play has grown deeper and richer in the course of its transfer to the West End or I've gotten smarter, because what seemed then a shallow exercise in clever craftsmanship is now much richer and resonant, the occasion not just for some bravura writing and acting but for thought-provoking and moving comedy and drama. 

As before, Payne builds on the currently fashionable branch of theoretical physics (explained in the play by one character) that allows for the existence of an infinite number of alternative universes. 

So when the play starts as a typical romantic comedy with a man and woman meeting-cute and the encounter doesn't work, the play hiccups and starts the scene again and then again, until it finds a universe that allows for things to move forward a bit. 

And through that process, trying and rejecting various alternative realities at each stage, we are able to piece together a narrative in which the couple get together, split, and get back together again. 

What is so much clearer, and repeatedly touching, this time around, is the reminder of how very many points there are in life when things could have gone differently, and how very fragile and not inevitable is the course any of our lives have taken.

Everyone has played the 'What if?' game with their lives, wondering what might have happened if they hadn't taken that job or hadn't met that person. Payne's play makes us recognise and feel the power of the recognition that every small moment in our lives might have gone differently and that getting to where we are now was in no way inevitable or even particularly likely. 

There's a second narrative line to the play as well, as the forward movement of the couple's relationship is punctuated by what we eventually realise are leaps toward the dark end of the story, suggesting an ironic fatality that makes all the diverging alternative realities converge on the same inevitable ending. And that, too, is more than a gimmick this time around, its philosophical and emotional implications lingering and resonating. 

Aside from everything else, Constellations is an extraordinary acting challenge for Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall who, guided ably by director Michael Longhurst, not only have to manoeuvre through the technical difficulty of constantly jumping backward and forward in time, between comic and serious moments, and through alternate characterisations, but must also create and sustain coherent and sympathetic characters out of these jigsaw pieces. 

That, perhaps, is the quality I most missed back in January – the sense of real characters I could empathise and identify with – and it makes all the difference. Constellations is not, as I thought back then, an empty exercise in cleverness, but a moving human story that forces us to look at our own lives in new and thought-provoking ways. 

Whether the play has gotten better or I've gotten smarter, I am delighted to have had this second opportunity to appreciate it and to recommend it without reservation.

Gerald Berkowitz

[Our original review, January 2012]

One of the characters in Nick Payne's short two-hander is (or may be) a physicist fascinated by string theory and its implication that there may be an infinite number of parallel universes in which every alternative to our reality exists. 

Payne's play is a clever rumination on that possibility, nicely executed in Michael Longhurst's production. But its limitation is that it is not much more than clever. 

Payne tells a simple boy-meets-girl story, but shows us along the way some of the directions it might have taken in alternate realities. So the first scene shows them meeting in a way that is a dead end, then hiccups and begins again with a small variation, then again and again until it finds a universe in which their relationship can move forward. 

And so on into several versions of a second scene, and a third, and all that follow, each time letting us see what might have happened (or is happening in some other reality) before choosing one option and moving on. 

All this is punctuated by one key scene that is repeated almost word-for-word six times through the play, giving the sense of spiralling in toward unpleasant and inescapable facts. 

The play runs a bit over an hour, but if you were to cut away all the repetitions, there'd probably be about twenty minutes of plot. Of course you'd also lose the point of the play, which is that for every event, decision or word in our lives there are all the imaginable alternatives that actually exist out there somewhere.

(Payne argues that this should reassure us, but I would think that someone living an unhappy life would not be too comforted by the thought that another version of himself is being a lot happier.) 

There is much to admire in the cleverness of Payne's concept and the entertaining way he presents it, but there's not much to involve you emotionally. The story and the characters are banal rom-com stuff, and the admirable work of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in differentiating among several variations on their characters, and of director Michael Longhurst in always keeping clear what's going on, can't make us care much about them or it. 

Constellations never gets beyond a 'See how clever I am' display by the playwright, and your appreciation of that cleverness, along with the attractive performances, are the play's major attractions.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Constellations -  Royal Court and Duke of York's Theatres 2012

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