It is rare that a piece of theatre convinces you to love it in the first 10 seconds. Maybe I am guilty of impulsive decisions, but the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Constellations at Richmond Theatre is captivating from the very first moment. Like the balloons that dot the stage as part of Tom Scutt’s striking set design, Constellations is a play that lights up and flickers with a peculiar sort of energy – an energy that stems from the union of writer Nick Payne’s extraordinary premise and an enthralling execution of his story.
Led by Joe Armstrong (Robin Hood, Happy Valley) as beekeeper Roland and Louise Brealey (Sherlock) as Marianne, a theoretical physicist, Constellations explores the theory that we exist in a multiverse in which every decision we do or don’t make plays out in a universe parallel to our own. Immediately the play runs the risk of being fascinatingly complicated or, alternatively, distilled into a simple, overdone cliché. However, the layout of each scene, seemingly as flashes from a different universe where the same situation plays out with different outcomes, makes for a uniquely refreshing and thought-provoking performance.
Thanks to the fascinating structure of the play, the audience is given an overview of the spectrum of different possibilities in the development of Roland and Marianne’s relationship. Seeing their first meeting played out over and over again, with different decisions and outcomes, is both an exploration into the fundamental nature of existence and, equally, an opportunity for Brealey and Armstrong to repeatedly showcase their talents in an impressive performance over the course of the 1 hour 10 minute running time.
The flickering energy of the piece is captured by Lee Curran’s lighting design and the sound design by composer Simon Slater and director David McSeveney, as they accompany every electric scene transition. As Armstrong and Brealey display more of their characters and their life stories, it is this sense of electric energy that sustains the pacing and the ethereal atmosphere of the play.
Under Michael Longhurst’s direction, Constellations is a play more about humanity than science, exploring the nature of human connection on a multi-versal level. Throughout Roland and Marianne’s relationship, Armstrong and Brealey bring to life some fantastic moments of humour, anger and deep, sorrowful tenderness, engaging Richmond Theatre’s audience and leaving me with no surprise at the news of another West End transfer later this summer.
While the first 10 seconds of the play are what captivated me, the final 10 seconds are what cements Constellations as a play about possibility, chance and choice, and serves as a reminder of the tenuous constellation of events and seeming circumstance that have led us to this present moment.
Constellations is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 27 June, and is then on tour at Theatre Royal Brighton 30 June to 4 July and Trafalgar Studios 9 July to 1 August. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.