The idea that one’s future is predetermined is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that whatever I do (whether good or bad) isn’t my fault, but on the other, what’s the point of my existence if the choices I make in life do not matter? This conundrum is the essence of Nick Payne’s play Constellations at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Unusually for me, I’m going to start with a word about the staging of the show before dipping into the plot. The reason for this is that the producers have done something rather unique in my experience. Instead of the traditional single cast performing their eight shows a week over the show’s run, Constellations has four separate casts, performing the script. So far there has been Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker & Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah so far. I went along to see Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey open in their run which is alternating with Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd. My review is therefore of the Tovey-Douglas show, which was for the first time performed in a same-sex setting.
The story itself is a potentially simple love story. At a mutual friend’s barbecue two people met. Manuel (Douglas) is a quantum physicist, and Roland (Tovey), a beekeeper. There is an almost immediate mutual attraction that leads them down a certain route, or does it? You see, unlike a standard narrative we, the audience, follow Manual and Roland from their initial meeting and response to each other, along different timelines as their multiverse stories pan out.
Going on the above, you might think that you need a degree in quantum physics in order to understand Constellations, but you would be wrong. True, I have seen every episode of The Big Bang Theory and am aware of the concept of multiverses thanks to Loki and the TVA, but even without this knowledge, after the first couple of minutes, the show is really easy to follow. This is helped by the writing, which is finely tuned, so each ‘multiverse scene’ is different but familiar to the others in its part of the timeline. We assisted with some wonderfully effective lighting from Lee Curran, which uses Tom Scutt’s deceptively simple but amazingly effective set based around a set of balloons, to signal the breaks and give the actors time to move.
And speaking of actors. What a job this must be for any thespian. Whilst we are sitting back watching, they have a marvellously complicated script that must have been a nightmare to learn. At points, the language of the scenes are so similar that everything relies on the way the lines are delivered and both actors have really nailed that aspect. Douglas brings a lovely campness to the role of Manuel. At points a stereotypical queen, at others just a boy in love, and at others a geeky lad connecting with the real world. Tovey’s Roland is the boy next door. A little shy, often quiet – especially when compared to Manuel – but then prone to bursts of over-the-top enthusiasm that take over as he loses all inhibitions leading to unexpected but very logical emotional outbursts. The two characters have real chemistry which makes the unlikely pairing of a beekeeper and quantum physicist feel real and understandable – talk about opposites attract.
So, if it’s hard work for the actors what must it be like for the director? Let’s be honest if there is a category of “Bravest Director” at the Olivier Awards next year then Michael Longhurst is the obvious winner. What would possess someone to take a pretty complicated script and then decide to have four different productions of it, with four different casts running pretty much at the same time? I wouldn’t do it but I’m so glad Longhurst has.
Overall, Constellations is an amazing idea that has been extremely well executed. There are moments where the script doesn’t totally feel right but on the whole, these are small fry compared to the overall concept. Although the version I saw had a same-sex pairing, there is nothing intrinsically gay about the play – the other three sets are mixed-sex. This is a story about the possibilities of love, irrespective of gender, orientation or age, and leaves one looking back on life wondering What If?.
Review by Terry Eastham
Four new casts. One relationship. Infinite Possibilities
‘One drink. And if you never want to see me again you never have to see me again.’
A quantum physicist and a beekeeper meet at a barbeque. They hit it off, or perhaps they don’t. They go home together, or maybe they go their separate ways. In the multiverse, with every possible future ahead of them, a love of honey could make all the difference.
This summer Nick Payne’s beautiful and heartbreaking romance Constellations is revived in the West End with a twist: four different casts take turns to journey through the multiverse exploring the infinite possibilities of a relationship; each refracting the play afresh. Starring Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd.
404 Strand, London WC2R 0NH
with Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Designed by Tom Scutt
Lighting Design by Lee Curran
Sound Design by David McSeveney
Music by Simon Slater
Movement direction by Lucy Cullingford
Casting by Anna Cooper CDG for the Donmar Warehouse