After a stellar first run at the Royal Court, a New York transfer starring Jake Gyllenhal and Ruth Wilson, and a supernova explosion of a UK tour, Constellations has finally free fallen into London’s West End. At Trafalgar Studios, it remains star-studded, with the play’s two characters Roland and Marianne played by Joe Armstrong (Happy Valley, Robin Hood TV series) and Louise Brealey (Sherlock) respectively. Sorry, lets transit away those solar references right now.
But just so we’re on the same wavelength (I wouldn’t want to totally eclipse you), I came to this show with high expectations. I expected, dare I say it, to be spellbound. And I hate myself a little bit because that’s something I never, ever do. Because I know I am cynical, and picky, and a little bit narky and it takes something fucking incredible to stun me. So this is really good play. A really really good play. Like, really good. That’s your warning because my review is going to make it sound mediocre and it’s really not. I urge you to see it, because it’s actually pretty special. And super pretty. The set has lots of cool white balloons that light up. So fun. (There I go, sounded cynical already. Sorry.)
Imagine you’re in a room of those balloons. At a party or something. And then someone comes up behind you secretly, holds one right up to your ear and pops it – BANG! You fucking jump out of your skin and then collapse half laughing, half crying cus it’s your best friend or significant other and maybe you’ve had a glass of wine or a lot of gummy bears and it’s hilarious. That level of shock and joy is what Constellations never reaches. There’s never an ‘aha’ or ‘oh no’ moment.
Anyway, the play. It’s cleverly based around some kinda quantum theory, relativity, timey-wimey, string theory thingymabob. Basically, you don’t need to get the theoretical physics to understand that it’s about what would happen in a relationship between a boy and girl if they made subtly different choices. Or do they make those choices? It dabbles will the idea that the characters, or we all, may not have any free will at all. It’s a bit like an exploration of the butterfly effect on a mini scale. So you have the almost same scene played a couple of times, but maybe the tone changes, or one of them says something slightly differently. Its effect is like Forum Theatre, if you’ve ever seen some of that, but without an audience intervening because the playwright has already written out all the different options. The light up balloons, and quick blackouts, are used to cut up all these little scenes.
That might make it sound like it would lack flow, but Payne’s masterful writing means that the repeats don’t get boring – they are used to create high comedy and deep pain to brilliant effect. Then somehow through all the chops and changes, there is a trajectory. It all moves towards something, a sad thing. And Michael Longhurst’s direction handles the pace at which it moves perfectly.
But what stands out most for me is the humour. In a play that’s actually very ponderous and serious, there are a lot of laughs, including some particularly good bee jokes. (Roland is a bee keeper.) It’s all so relatable: the awkward first meetings, the almost first night sleepover, the very British small talk, the late night spiels, the really hard break ups. And Brealey and Armstrong are excellent, easily handling the complicated stop-start rhythm and always present; unphased, by the sometimes drastic alterations in emotion.
But I left the theatre feeling like it hadn’t quite packed a punch or moved me to tears in the way I expected it to. Maybe that was my mood or the preceding hype. I think there were people tearing up next to me. Perhaps that night, the audience-actor dynamic didn’t quite create a celestially perfect ambience.
Leaving that dark matter aside, Constellations has the gravity and grace of a delicately worked out piece. It deals with human suffering in a way that feels real but in a manner that is wholly innovative. It is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 1 August.