Theatre review: Constellations is a beautiful and sad play about life’s possibilities

Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong are faultless in this lifeaffirming production
Trafalgar Studios | ★★★★☆

A disconcerting and comforting thought: everything that has ever happened, every permutation of what could possibly take place, is taking place now, forever, and stretched back infinitely into the past. It’s a point drummed softly but precisely home in Nick Payne’s thoughtful play Constellations, in which bee-keeper Roland and cosmologist Marianne struggle to keep it together in a world of infinite possibility.

Playing and replaying the same scene over and over is a trope edging toward a cliché in cinema – think Groundhog Day, Memento and last year’s Edge of Tomorrow – but it’s not so common in theatre, where to do so tests the stamina of actors and risks testing the patience of audiences. At only 70 minutes Constellations’ repetitiousness isn’t given time to become wearing.

Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong are faultless, with Armstrong in particular masterfully conveying the hidden depths of shallow exchanges. An introduction at a barbecue is fraught with tremulous uncertainty; an unanswered text message cuts to the bone.

As Marianne and Roland repeat the same scenes in different ways, the stopping, starting, stuttering acquires an elegiac rhythm that carries you toward the emotional denouement, which, while pleasantly life-affirming, is a bit of a cop out. The problem isn’t that it feels mawkish – it doesn’t – but that the hopeful note on which it ends is out of step with the play’s own rigorous logic.

Still, Constellations retains the wondrous power of when it was first performed by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall at the Royal Court in 2012. Thanks to Tom Scutt’s stunningly simple set design, even a theatre as large and uncomfortable as Trafalgar Studios felt bedroom-like in its intimacy.

For a play so unorthodox it feels utterly universal. You don’t need a degree in theoretical physics to recognise yourself in Constellations. You just need to have lived, loved, or at one point or another been completely unsure of what to do. Quite possibly the sweetest play about quantum mechanics you’ll ever see.

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