Last night at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, Nick Payne’s Constellations won the award for Best Play and for anyone who saw the production earlier in the year, this was hardly a surprise: Constellations at the Royal Court Upstairs was a jewel of a play in its perfect space: 70 minutes, two actors, a space that barely holds eighty people, a play that takes the microscopic and the immense and shows them in bright, unexpected, intimate shades.
In that sense, transferring Constellations to the West End was a gamble: in two performances the Duke of York’s can fit almost as many people as they saw Constellations in its entire Royal Court run. Scale and perspective have changed, design and light have adjusted but the production has lost none of its power. If you can’t be in the middle of this world as you were at the Royal Court, you can still savour it, enjoy its beauty and dissect it.
Dissection might be the key word for describing Nick Payne’s play. Not in its cold clinical sense, not in its brutal bloody connotations but as a door to an emotional universe under the microscope. A relationship starts, progresses, stumbles and recoils around the joys, brutalities and injustice of life. Things not only can but will happen a hundred different ways. The moment repeats itself only to unfold into something new. The effect is the opposite of Groundhog Day: there is no repeat, every syllable is unexpected.
It’s a technically bold, emotionally brilliant play. In Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall, it finds two actors playful enough to unlock its quirkiness and emotionally uncompromising to live through its brutality. Director Michael Longhurst keeps things simple, true and transparent which is exactly what the play needs. The set, a forest of white balloons, gifts the production with a shade of heaven. It brought to mind Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death.
In the small upstairs studio at the Royal Court, few people got the opportunity to see Constellations. With the production playing at the Duke of York’s, you have absolutely no excuse.