It is one thing to stage an experimental tragicomedy about the infinite possibilities of one couple's relationship across an infinite number of universes in the tiny Royal Court Upstairs. It is another to dare to transfer it to a 700-seat West End theatre. And, oh my stars, Nick Payne's already gloriously improbable play succeeds entirely.
'Constellations' – which premiered at the Court in January – probably isn't quite the best new play of 2012, but Michael Longhurst's transferring production is easily the best West End show of the year.
A 70-minute two-hander drama with no set, that uses a basic take on string theory to portray the initially exponential, eventually heartbreakingly narrow possible outcomes of the relationship between motor-mouthed physicist Marianne (Sally Hawkins) and loveably lunkish beekeeper Roland (Rafe Spall) may not sound like it's for everyone.
But trust me, it really is: if any of the new mega musicals coming to the West End in the next few months can elicit a fraction of the laughs and tears of 'Constellations', they will run and run and run.
The set-up is audacious and beautifully simple. Marianne and Roland meet at a barbeque. She makes a crap joke. He looks at her strangely. They never see each other again. The end. Except that there's a flash of light and we see another barbecue in another universe, where things turned out slightly differently. And another and another and another, until we see a Marianne and Roland who click, and the play follows them, repeating the same trick at pivotal points in their relationship.
That's pretty much it, and it is brilliant. Superb actors both, Hawkins and Spall have perfect chemistry and no trouble filling the space, presenting rounded, beautifully flawed characters that are subtly different each time: a shift in accent here, a slight but crucial alteration in worldview there.
Mostly, 'Constellations' is extremely funny, with the bigger stage eliciting bigger performances and bigger laughs. Payne, Hawkins and Spall have a 'Groundhog Day'-esque ball with the repetition – the scene(s) where Roland attempts to propose to Marianne via the medium of a rambling speech about bees left me gasping for air.
But 'Constellations' is unabashedly a weepie too – Payne uses flash forward scenes to foreshadow the ending, deftly weaving in undercurrents of dread. His sequence of imperceptibly different final scenes will floor you.
And it's all topped off by Tom Scutt's splendid, abstract design. Hovering over the bare stage is a multitude of large balloons whose aspect shifts from jolly banality to ethereal beauty under Lee Curran's evocative lighting. They don't get in the way of a play that is firmly about the two performances, yet they subtly complement them: the slow drift of falling spheres in the final sequence is utterly heartbreaking