Here’s an absolute delight, a little gem of a play by Nick Payne, a playwright who’s been bubbling under at the Royal Court for a while, performed to perfection by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall on a simple raised square platform under a night sky of white balloons.
Michael Longhurst’s deft, highly skilled production, designed by Tom Scutt, is only 70 minutes long, but dense with affection and longing, pain and regret, as beekeeper Roland (Spall) and Sussex University cosmologist Marianne (Hawkins) meet at a barbecue, have an affair, separate, meet up again and face life, death and the universe with, on the whole, humorous equanimity.
Scenes are replayed with different emphases, and in parallel scenarios, or universes, at first flippantly offering alternative versions of the truth but increasingly suggesting a world of preferences and second chances. Marianne has a dying mother and occasional symptoms herself of neurological disorder and disease.
Spending time together becomes spending a lifetime together, partly because of circumstances, partly because of a dawning realisation that, with the passing of time, time itself continues on its way without us.
This could sound winsome; indeed, the show suggests to me one or two recent toe-curling little musicals rigorously overhauled by Caryl Churchill. But the repeat playing of a proposal scene from literally different angles, or the rapid cross-questioning of outside affections, only deepens an original study in love and friendship.
Against the odds, the overall effect is touching and beautiful. Hawkins has a wonderful way of spilling emotional beans while holding herself in check with a comic shrug of deprecation; while Spall’s Roland, solid and considerate, receives a serious education in listening and adjusting, riding Marianne’s outbursts with speed and sharpness.