Constellations (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Constellations (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 4th)

All available puns, witticisms and superlatives available to critics must surely have been used up about Nick Payne’s play Constellations since it first appeared at the Royal Court a little over three years ago.

But it’s impossible not to remark on the out of this world quality of this heavenly new touring production, with its stellar performances, and a clever plot of such intellect that you almost wish Prof Brian Cox was on hand to talk you through it.

This two-hander runs for 75 minutes yet is packed with ideas, energy, raw emotion, humour, and plenty of genuinely touching moments that tug at the heartstrings. If for a moment you are reminded of Love Story then you are swiftly dragged back into a reality that has no room for the saccharine. For this couple love means always saying sorry, recognising each other’s faults as well as your own, and dicing with its challenges.

The play itself is a drama worthy of high praise. It plays with time in the way J.B.Priestley did in works that shifted past, present and future, yet adds the complexities of quantum theory to create not one or two parallel universes but the sort of multiverses which the crew of the Next Generation Starship Enterprise found themselves having to tackle from time to time. Yet the play is as much about the love between two people and the sweetness of honey as it is mind-boggling scientific theory.

The result is a stage (gloriously bedecked by balloons – or are they planets – or bodily fluids – or infinite possibilities?) on which two immediately likeable people meet, fall in love, and live out their lives again and again and again. The idea that from any given moment a myriad of outcomes can develop is played out as scenes are repeated, sometimes with subtle changes of pace and tone, sometimes with more obvious differences.

The audience begins to  sense the endless opportunities for scenes to work out more positively and the will for happiness to prevail is tangible as what is a laugh out loud scene one moment becomes tragic the next.

All credit to the two superb actors who make the piece so engaging. Joe Armstrong as Roland is never less than compelling as the down to earth, decent guy with a passion for bees; while Louise Brealey’s intelligent Marianne teeters between the joy of life and the pain of loss. We get the idea that in each scenario of their lives this is a couple destined to meet and fated to fall in love, yet no end of possibilities can change the inevitable.

Michael Longhurst’s direction is crisp, never once allowing the complexities of the play to tempt the mind to wander. Tom Scutt’s design and Lee Curran’s lighting suggest the wonder of science and the limitlessness and fragility of life and love.

It is no wonder that this excellent production is headed back to London for a short season at the Trafalgar Studios from July 9th. Such a transfer is credit to all involved and gives still more people the chance to think, reflect and imagine well beyond the final curtain. It has to be the most charming, stimulating and thought-provoking play you will see this year.

David Guest