Constellations, Vaudeville Theatre, review: is your falling-in-love story all true?

Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, one of the four pairings cast in this production of Constellations - Marc Brenner
Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, one of the four pairings cast in this production of Constellations - Marc Brenner

In a multiverse, so the scientists assure us, there exists an infinite range of possibilities. The same could be said of the romantic options in this world, and that’s exactly the point Nick Payne is making in his multi-award-winning 2012 play, Constellations. Two people meet and it goes well; two people meet and it goes badly. Every which way, the wheels of love, chance and fate keep on spinning.

Michael Longhurst directed the play’s premiere at the tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, and saw his production travel first to the West End and then to Broadway. He revisits it now for the Donmar Warehouse in the West End, but with a twist: four different casts of two actors will assume the roles, and no longer will there be a monodirectional focus on white heterosexuals in their thirties.

Opening the season are two pairings, of black actors Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, and household names Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, who are white but considerably older than the characters were originally imagined to be. Later in the summer, audiences will see the all-male team of Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, in rep with Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd.

Atim, indubitably the brightest star in these first two Constellations, has us at “hello”. Or rather at her opening (chat-up) line, which runs: “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?” She is Marianne, a quantum physicist, and she has made a bee-line for beekeeper Roland; they’ve met at a barbecue that’s ruined by rain – or is it? That depends on which account you’re hearing, as Payne replays each scene different ways, offering a range of potential outcomes. It’s an ingenious device, like the 1998 film Sliding Doors sped up and slid open and shut many more times.

These slick 70 minutes chart, with multiple refractions at each stage, the progression – or not – of Marianne and Roland’s relationship, including intimations of mortality which are interwoven from the start. When I reviewed the 2012 premiere, I found the twinning of the two characters’ rather abstruse professions to be effortfully whimsical. This time round, however, the rationale seems clearer: such a connection can happen to anyone, anywhere.

Atim and Jeremiah give a masterclass in presenting the shifting possibilities of interpretation, of inflection and body language, in each fresh take on these short scenes. Our enjoyment of every replay is heightened by knowing the core lines but wondering exactly how they’ll be delivered and how received. Atim is a marvellously livewire performer, and it’s thrilling to watch her face shade expressively with humour and sadness depending on how well things are panning out for the couple.

If Atim and Jeremiah are the bee (-keeper)’s knees, expertly blending wit and pathos, there’s less honey from Capaldi and Wanamaker. The timing of the older pair is slightly off, and they struggle to capture the emotional truth pumping from the heart of the play, resorting too often to awkward gestures and gurning. Unlike Atim and Jeremiah, they don’t quite differentiate with sufficient stylishness and sensitivity between the varying iterations of Marianne and Roland; the beekeeping/physics elements, too, are less convincing.

But designer Tom Scutt packs the otherwise undecorated playing area with heavy helium balloons, which Lee Curran’s deceptively simple lighting turns beguiling shades of white and grey. Constellations is by far the classiest offering currently on show in a West End that remains some way from full strength – and Atim, for one, is a shooting star.

Until Sept 12. Buy Constellations tickets from Telegraph Tickets or call 0330 333 4814