CONSTELLATIONS, Trafalgar Studios - Review

Evolutionary behaviour of bees versus quantum theory's relation to early cosmology. Disparate subjects that only someone like Tom Stoppard could bring together and interweave. Or perhaps not...

Ever since Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life became an indelible part of popular culture, many writers have taken delved into the theme of living one's life over again and seeing the consequence of alternative choices made. Nick Payne's novel approach to Constellations has been to take the seemingly incongruous topics of theoretical physics and apiaries and craft a clever, original and – most importantly – a personal take on the meaning of life.

The present production of Constellations has returned to central London following its successful run at the Royal Court Theatre, the West End, Broadway and a recent national tour. Succeeding Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall – its original stars – are Louise Brealey (actor, journalist and playwright) and Joe Armstrong, playing quantum physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland respectively. While comparisons will always be made when roles are recast, Brealey and Armstrong have made the play their own, injecting a different level of energy into the proceedings. 

Meeting at a mutual friend's barbeque, we follow Roland and Marianne as multiple versions of landmark events in their lives play themselves out. Sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortably truthful, but always interesting to watch.

One of the things that impressed me were the lengths that the actors went to, to convey alternative versions of their characters. In one memorable scene, both Marianne and Roland are deaf, so Brealey and Armstrong performed the whole scene using British Sign Language. It certainly made me think about the aurally and visually-impaired in relation to theatre, and the themes of alienation in general.

While Constellations can most certainly be enjoyed on its own merits, I find it interesting that aside from scientific speculation, what helped to crystallise the play for Payne were two equally important landmarks in his life – the death of his father in 2010 and his own recent marriage. With this in mind, it’s clear why Constellations has such a balanced view of existence, the bitter with the sweet. Through the bees’ “clarity of purpose” and their intensely-short lives, Payne has neatly dovetailed Roland’s vocation with a metaphor that reflects the weightier themes of the play.

For all of its intelligence and sophistication, Constellations is anything but a cerebral exercise. Rather, it is a play that wears its heart on its sleeve and dares to hope in all the possible worlds that we do ‘get it right’; to find someone who will light the way, even when things are darkest.

© Michael Davis 2015

Constellations runs at Trafalgar Studios until 1 August 2015.

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