Constellations review: Sheila Atim and co make this revival a cosmic hit

·2-min read
Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah in Constellations (Marc Brenner)
Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah in Constellations (Marc Brenner)

Winner of the Evening Standard 2012 Best Play Award, Nick Payne’s Constellations is a “what if?” fantasy for grown-ups, tracking two characters, Marianne and Roland, through a variety of possible futures. It’s funny, heartbreaking and deftly smuggles a lot of complex thought about cosmology into its 75 minutes. Revived by its original director Michael Longhurst, this exploration of the multiverse now has four different star casts, to lure different audiences back to the theatre: a move both shrewd and fitting.

Yesterday’s double opening showed the play works as well with young actors, charming Ivanno Jeremiah and the sublime Sheila Atim, as it does with serio-comic veterans Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker. Each pair brings out different nuances as Marianne and Roland meet, click, fail to click, split up, stay together, have affairs, and so on. It’s not giving too much away to say that in several scenarios Marianne develops a brain tumour. Rightly or wrongly, this seems extra poignant coming from Atim, 30; likewise there’s a different frisson when Wanamaker, 72, talks about taking a 24-year-old lover.

Roland is a beekeeper, Marianne an academic working on string theory and its suggestion that “every decision you have ever - and never - made exists”. Thus snappy scenes, lasting minutes or mere seconds, are replayed with variations. Sometimes just the tone changes: the same words spoken angrily, needily, jokingly. In one a lover has dandruff, in another, a centre parting.

Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker in Constellations (Marc Brenner)
Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker in Constellations (Marc Brenner)

Other differences are momentous: in one moving scene, the couple communicate only in sign language; in others, they discuss life and death. The romantic monologue about the sex life of bees is hilarious in each of its five tellings by Jeremiah and Capaldi, though. Payne subverts the multiverse theory to celebrate individualism. Later in the run, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd, will give same-sex and middle-aged spins on the tale.

Designer Tom Scutt’s canopy of balloons lights up at each scene change, like cerebral synapses firing or failing. Longhurst’s production is tight and taut and it’s fascinating to see the physical, as well as verbal, language he draws from each cast.

Tom Scutt’s set design includes a canopy of balloons that light up at each scene change (Marc Brenner)
Tom Scutt’s set design includes a canopy of balloons that light up at each scene change (Marc Brenner)

Broadly, Atim and Jeremiah’s characters are more swaggering or romantic, Capaldi and Wanamaker’s more apologetic or cranky. The repetitions in the script rarely drag, even when seeing the play twice. But they do expose actorly technique and it is here that Atim stands out: she is always, utterly, shatteringly in the moment, truly one of our finest actors.

That’s not to detract from the variegated, quirky, always watchable performances of Jeremiah, Capaldi and Wanamaker. This is a short, sharp, smart hit of first-class drama, that humanises the randomness of the universe. We all contain multitudes: so take a punt on whichever cast takes your fancy.

Until 12 Sept:

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