the Royal Court, the West End and most recently Broadway, Nick Payne's Constellations returns to the UK for a regional tour; in the last few days it's been announced it'll also make another trip to the West End, ending this tour at Trafalgar Studios, but I'd already got a ticket to see it on its stop at Richmond. This is still Michael Longhurst's production on Tom Scutt's balloon-filled set, with Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey taking over the roles of Roland and Marianne who meet, fall in love, break up, get back together, and get married. Or just meet, fall in love and break up. Or even just meet once. Because the story takes place in the quantum multiverse, and we get to see dozens of the infinite directions their relationship could go in, from hating each other on sight and never seeing each other again, all the way to their happily ever after.
But the odds are against that happy ending, because a tragic drama lurks within the romantic comedy: Marianne has a serious health scare, and while there's some universes where everything works out all right, inevitably in others things go from bad to worse, and she winds up considering ending it all before the illness takes her.
The funny thing about seeing the show for a third time, now that I'm so familiar with the way the story's told, is how linear it seems. Of course Roland and Marianne's story is told by the same scene playing out repeatedly, with subtle distinctions that define whether the story gets to continue or not*, what other way to tell a love story could there be? The fact that ominous scenes from Marianne's illness start appearing out of sequence early in the play, links in to a scientific theory about time she shares with us at the end; this out-of-sequence storytelling then gets flipped to give us a sweet ending.
I don't know if Armstrong and Brealey are playing the tonal differences between otherwise identical scenes a bit broader than Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins did, but the changes seem more apparent now - and with them the fact that even when speaking the same words, tone of voice can spell the difference between a relationship ending or carrying on stronger. Although Armstrong is lovable as ever, I've never been sold on Brealey, and I think there's something a bit clinical about her performance that stops this quite achieving the emotional hit the play is capable of. It's still entertaining and remains an impressive achievement though.
Constellations by Nick Payne is booking until the 27th of June at Richmond Theatre; then continuing on tour to Brighton and Trafalgar Studio 1.
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.
*it only just occured to me that Constellations is like a theatrical choose-your-own-adventure book.