Constellations at the Vaudeville Theatre – review

Nick Payne’s hit two-hander returns – with four casts – this time featuring Ivanno Jeremiah, Sheila Atim, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker

Ivanno Jeremiah, Sheila Atim, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker
Ivanno Jeremiah, Sheila Atim, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker
© Marc Brenner

Any chance to revisit Nick Payne's miraculous mini-masterpiece is cause for celebration but the Donmar, reviving artistic director Michael Longhurst's enthralling production first seen at the Royal Court, is giving diligent theatrical completists the perfect excuse to see it not once, but four more times. They've come up with the inspired idea of casting the shape-shifting two hander with four very different pairs of actors, each team bringing fresh colours and perspectives to this scintillating script.

Two of the companies open later in the summer, but for now theatregoers can choose between rising stars Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah as, respectively, quantum physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland, or veteran actors Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi in the same roles. The contrast is fascinating, and specific enough that this mostly feels like watching two different productions, despite both versions sharing identical technical elements, from Tom Scutt's cosmically beautiful set, populated by hanging spheres that at different times resemble planets, party balloons, human brain cells… to Lee Curran's dreamlike lighting that alternates between stridently harsh and a soft, comforting glow.

Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah invest their iteration of the play with attitude, blazing emotionalism and lightning fast humour. An attractive, mercurial young Black couple, they revel, as do we, in their intensity, intellect and sex appeal. The chemistry is palpable. With the lithe elegance of a dancer, Atim is capable of conveying a myriad of thoughts and feelings by a simple adjustment of her stance and a loaded stare while Jeremiah brilliantly goes from puppyish to aggressive in the blink of an eye, or rather a change in the lighting. When the story turns tragic, the contrast between this Marianne and Roland at the height of their powers and the damaged, pleading shells they become, is devastating. This is a magical pairing, and a well nigh flawless 75 minutes of theatre.

Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi bring a very different skill set to the table. One is much more aware of the acting with this couple, both in terms of the immaculately crafted performances but also the layers of protection that a significantly older Marianne and Roland cover themselves with. Capaldi is particularly good as a man who has hurled himself so completely into his bee-keeping career that he can't even talk about his passion without breaking down while Wanamaker looks on with a mixture of incredulity and barely-there tolerance. When things start to fall apart for this couple it doesn't pack quite the same emotional wallop as we are acutely aware of their frailties from the get-go.

A wonderful actress, Wanamaker feels the least well-served by the text as some of Marianne's more kookie moments (her opening line, to a perfect stranger, is "do you know why it's impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?") just feel more like the utterances of a much younger woman. Similarly, the way she expresses her indecision over whether or not to start a physical relationship with Roland (he asks if she wants him to leave, "not in a bad way, but yeah" she responds) doesn't fully convince coming from this smart, sorted middle aged woman. If the Capaldi-Wanamaker version feels more like an interesting theatrical experiment than a fully satisfying reading of the play, there is nonetheless a touching and unique undertow of melancholy to it, as though both of these strange but rather lovely loners know that this could be a final chance at connection.

Payne's astonishing text may be brief but is super-charged with wit, longing and emotional intelligence. It revels in the possibilities both of theatre, where artifice and stark reality can seamlessly co-exist, and the endless permutations of life itself as we watch Marianne and Roland's tragi-comic love story play out in multiple versions. A different word, a new gesture, an extra piece of information, an altered beat or emphasis, sends this likably flawed couple spiralling off in a new direction, as scenes play then re-play, and the chronological order of scenes is repeatedly confounded.

It ought to be confusing, elliptical, but somehow it never quite is, largely due to Payne's extraordinary gift for painting vivid pictures of modern urban lives with just a few lines of funny, relatable dialogue. He then turns it on us as the theme of mortality is introduced – I won't expand on that in case it spoils it for anyone unfamiliar with the play – and we realise how much Marianne and Roland truly mean to each other, and to us: what started out as sparkling, ingenious and often downright rude, becomes darker, richer, and achingly sad.

It's a total pleasure to re-encounter this magnificent play in Michael Longhurst's boldly imaginative staging. Complex, yet accessible, and hugely satisfying, at least one of the four casts should be on every discerning theatregoers's must-see list for the summer.

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Closed: 12 September 2021