Constellations is Nick Payne’s critically acclaimed two-hander about love, science and infinite possibilities. Beekeeper Roland meets scientist Marianne at a barbecue, and the following encounters explore the different paths their relationship can take, based on the smallest possible influences.
Constellations has attracted a large amount of attention from critics in recent years, after award-winning runs on the West End and Broadway featuring the talents of Rafe Spall and Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland and Sally Hawkins, and Ruth Wilson as Marianne. And it’s not hard to see why – the script is clever without being either confusing or obnoxious, and the ideas discussed within the play never overshadow the humanity of either of the characters. It tackles the idea of how a relationship hinges on tiny factors with far more elegance than, for example, the much vaunted La La Land, or the less acclaimed If/When.
Two hander plays are notoriously difficult to keep lively as neither actor can afford to stop or drop in energy for even one line, and I am pleased to report that both were well and truly up to the challenge in this production. The characters are sensitively drawn and the actors were both able to display a considerable range of emotions and characteristics; Joe Willis’ Roland ran the gamut of intentions from soft, kindly and gentle to harsh, threatening and jealous, while Emma Whitworth took Marianne to some very dark places while retaining a fizzing, bubbly edge to her performance.
They formed a thoroughly believable couple throughout the play, which traces a relationship through various different life stages. The chemistry between the two actors was palpable, and the shifts of intention from light flirtation to desperate circumstances were handled with ease. As the play shifts into its later stages, the character of Marianne takes a central role and Whitworth was equal to the challenge of handling emotionally difficult scenes with accuracy and dignity. Willis remained a wonderful foil to this, with less dialogue but a tremendous amount of feeling imbued in his extremely expressive eyes.
The aesthetic of the piece was thoughtfully constructed for the most part; the actors were dressed in blue clothes that served to create a clear, neutral canvas, and surrounded by floor-to-ceiling starscapes. The lighting, however, was heavy-handed and often served as a distraction from the stellar acting. Although it is a challenge to demonstrate constant scene changes – the play covers multiple universes that can change within a few lines – constantly utilising drastic lighting effects only serves to remove the audience from the more realistic scenes being constructed on the stage. A subtler approach would have been less jarring for audience members. Elsewhere, sound was used with more skill and subtlety to set the tone for different scenes, and its absence in a scene involving sign language was a beautifully put together moment only possible through its ubiquitous presence elsewhere.
There are only a few problematic moments throughout – some of the darker moments of the play feel a little less secure, and the two actors are at their best during the funnier scenes due to an abundance of natural comic timing. The staging of the play – set in the round – is used to good effect for the most part, although to make the most of the staging and avoid awkward sightlines for the audience, it would be wise to keep the actors moving fluidly around the space. There were a couple of moments when one or both of them were obscured to portions of the audience for a short period by the other.
Overall, this production of Constellations is an effective performance of a beautiful script. The quality of the acting is consistent throughout, and the energy and emotions of the actors rarely drop. Questions of free will, Tesco honey, terminal illness and the DVLA are all addressed with enthusiasm and feeling, and if you venture down to the Drama Barn over the next two nights, you will find that this play is well worth the admission price.
Constellations by Nick Payne, directed by Richard Stranks. Performing at the Drama Barn between the 3rd – 5th of February at 7:30pm. Tickets available on the door and online.