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‘Constellations’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Constellations (Photo by Marc Brenner)
    Photo by Marc BrennerSheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah
  2. Constellations (Photo by Marc Brenner)
    Photo by Marc BrennerZoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi

Time Out Says

4 out of 5 stars

Nick Payne’s multiversal romp is back for the summer with some serious celebrity casting

If there really are an infinite number of parallel universes, then it stands to reason that there are an infinite number of versions of Nick Payne’s multiversal tragicomedy ‘Constellations'.

In some universes he didn’t write it; in others it was a flop – maybe because his romance about an astrophysicist and a beekeeper didn’t land Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall as its original 2012 cast. Or maybe it lacked Michael Longhurst’s crunchily assured direction, or Tom Scutt’s gorgeously abstract balloon-based set. Or maybe the Earth was destroyed just before its first preview. I dunno: infinity is a lot.

In our thread of the multiverse, though, Longhurst has brought ‘Constellations’ back to the West End over the summer of 2021. And pleasingly we’re getting four different casts – Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, Anna Maxwell-Martin and Chris O’Dowd – offering up four alternate versions of what ‘Constellations’ might be.

Clearly most people will only see one pairing. But if money’s no object, I’d say it’s worth taking a look at multiple versions. It’s short. And you’re not just getting the same performances with different faces. 

Of the first two pairings of actors (the second two come along next month) it is immediately obvious that Atim/Jeremiah make the most sense. Payne’s play – which follows Marianne and Roland’s relationship from beginning to end via the presentation of multiple permutations of key moments in their relationship – was clearly written with its protagonists intended to be under-40. Marianne explicitly states that that’s her age at one point. And everything about their behaviour and the social world they inhabit screams ‘middle youth’.

So they’re the more obvious casting: but they’re also really good. Recent Olivier winner and major rising star Atim is brilliant as a loud, lairy Marianne, rougher and tougher than Hawkins’s fragile manic pixie. Fierce and funny and terrific at abrupt changes of emotional temperature, she tears through the role with full-blooded abandon. Jeremiah is no slouch, but in playing Roland as a gently blokey dreamer, he’s kind of doing the part the obvious way, the better for his co-star to bounce off. If Atim’s boisterous charisma dominates, the pair have good chemistry together and a particularly amusing knack for abruptly repeating a scene with about 2000 percent more attitude.

By contrast, Capaldi and Wanamaker start from the position of ringing a bit false. They’re far older than the characters, which isn’t a big deal, but it’s a dissonance amped up by Capaldi playing Roland as a sort of twitchy, gurning, eccentric uncle type. I can absolutely understand why he didn’t just go with the flow on Roland, but while often highly amusing, he just comes across as too weird for the eventually tragic relationship to be truly touching, especially because he somewhat drowns out Wanamaker’s more straitlaced Marianne. In Marvel’s multiversal TV show ‘Loki’, there’s a version of the eponymous hero who is a crocodile – great fun, but too bizarre to actually be the ‘proper’ version of Loki. Capaldi isn’t quite that out there. But he explicitly feels like a Roland Variant, not the real deal. A fascinating experiment, though, and his ‘Doctor Who’-begat fans will doubtless lap up the goofing.

Does ‘Constellations’ itself stand up on a basic,cross-dimensional level? I think it’s still good, but its dabblings with the quantum realm and string theory feel less outre now than they did ten years ago. Maybe that’s because Marvel has brought a lot of similar ideas into huge mainstream films and TV shows, or maybe it’s simply the fact that ‘Constellations’ is now a pretty famous play. Underneath the bells and whistles it’s undeniably a bit Richard Curtis-y. And maybe it could do with a brand new production next time out: this one is great, but there’s the danger it becomes like that Stephen Daldry version of ‘An Inspector Calls’, so definitive it never gets replaced.

But it’s a zingy, entertaining play. Atim and Jeremiah nail it. Wanamaker and Capaldi don’t quite. There will be some universes where it’s the opposite. But it’s hard to imagine there are any in which ‘Constellations’ doesn’t add a little magic to our summer.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£20-£69.50. Runs 1hr 10min (no interval)
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