Constellations at the Vaudeville Theatre – review

Nick Payne’s play returns

Chris O'Dowd, Anna Maxwell Martin, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey
Chris O'Dowd, Anna Maxwell Martin, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey
© Marc Brenner

Comparisons are odious, but pretty much inevitable as this Donmar/Royal Court remount of Nick Payne's mini-masterpiece centred on a couple edgily falling in love, while exploring a multitude of subtle variations, continues it's West End season with a third and fourth cast. Cast one gave us a luminous Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah as a dynamic young pair while cast two had Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi as an older couple in a version that felt more like an acting exercise than a real play, despite the brilliance of the veteran actors involved, and the shimmering inventiveness of Michael Longhurst's direction.

The second part of the Constellations season sees Omari Douglas (one of the breakout stars from TV's It's A Sin) and Russell Tovey (delivering career-best work here) as gay men connecting in a multi-Verse that isn't always sympathetic to them, not because of their sexuality but because life sometimes sucks and is often unpredictable. Then Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd, who as "types" are probably nearest to the original 2012 casting of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall, take up the roles of cosmologist Marianne and beekeeper Roland.

The Douglas-Tovey is undoubtedly the sexiest iteration of the script. The opening gambit where Marianne, rechristened Manuel for the enchanting Douglas, points out to a bemused Roland that it's impossible to lick your own elbows, has never sounded like such a come-on, and numerous subsequent exchanges appear to be bathed in a post coital glow often unexplored by the other teams of actors.

Tovey's laddish persona fits Roland like a glove and he is hilarious as a man often bewildered both by his own feelings and the sheer magnetic force that Douglas's beautiful force of nature pulls on him. This pair may be the funniest but they are also the most heartrending: the break in Tovey's voice as he tries to negotiate his partner's potential descent into the abyss is one of the most moving things on any current London stage.

The Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd version plays like a superior Rom-Com, albeit an unusually erudite one, with an edge of tragedy. This pair are hard-drinking, witty, self-contained, endlessly engaging urbanites -apart from one beguiling, needy, hopelessly romantic version of Marianne that Maxwell Martin evokes with supreme skill. O'Dowd's Roland is a genuine charmer, while self-effacement has never been as riveting as it is here in Maxwell Martin's delightful performance. The contrast between the fiercely intelligent academic and the stammering, struggling wreck she becomes has never been so marked or affecting as it is with this Marianne who, more than any of her predecessors, is clearly trying so hard, despite her illness, to spare the feelings of the lovable man-child she is in a relationship with.

Payne's spare but punishingly essential writing is so truthful, complex and malleable that each moment feels like a cliffhanger even when this is the umpteenth time you're hearing an exchange of dialogue, or you've seen a couple of versions of this exact same scene. One of the great joys of rewatching Longhurst's playful, ingenious staging is noting the ways all four versions differ from each other, in tone, blocking and emphasis.

Apart from Payne's words, the other constants are the technical elements, all flawless: Tom Scutt's award-winning abstract set of hanging, sometimes tumbling, spheres resembling planets, party balloons, human brain cells, Lee Curran's vivid, expressive lighting, and David McSeveney's haunting soundscape. This is a production where everybody is at the top of their game.

The new acting teams are stunning, and turn what was previously a fine piece of theatre into an unmissable theatrical event: if you have the time and the money, try to see them both. I honestly couldn't advise as to which is the better pair to see, but this is a pretty splendid dilemma to have. Cosmically brilliant.

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Closed: 12 September 2021