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Theatre Review: Constellations

Nick Payne’s Constellations makes for a long evening and a theatrical let-down

Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd in Constellations, which offers plenty of stars but not much of a picture Photo: Marc Brenner

Vaudeville Theatre, London, till Sept 12

There are four productions of Nick Payne’s play Constellations running at the Vaudeville Theatre, each one pairing different actors, but all directed by Michael Longhurst and with an identical script about relationships.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is to say ‘how awfully clever they’ve all been to make the point that romances between black people, gay people and others, where the backgrounds are very different, are all really ultimately much the same’.

The second way of looking at it is to say ‘isn’t that just a wee bit patronising, isn’t there a real danger that theatre audiences will get bored stiff hearing the same script over and over again, and would it really have been asking so much of Payne to have written four different plays, rather than repeating the same one over and over?’

No one is, of course, forcing any punter to sit through more than one production, but it’s clearly the idea that they mix and match. If so, the theatre should at least consider a special offer: buy one Constellations, get two free.

I did honestly go along wanting to enjoy myself, but, as is so often the case with bargain packs, I was soon wondering if I had the stomach for them. Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey were the first pairing I saw. They are undoubtedly two very good actors at the top of their games.

Omari Douglas in Constellations. Credit: Marc Brenner

They don’t really have a story as such to enact. It’s more a series of sketches showing the usual stages of any relationship, but not in any particular order: the first meeting, the first serious illness of one of the parties, the discovery of unfaithfulness, the break-up etc. They have to work through all of this on a set that is for no very obvious reason full of white balloons (hello, set designer Tom Scutt, what are you trying to say?) Douglas is the more expressive of the two actors and this makes for a mildly amusing contrast with Tovey’s more deadpan approach.

There’s a lot that happens between them that anyone who has ever been in a relationship will find familiar – sometimes uncomfortably so – but the problem is I never felt any real chemistry between these two chaps. They never managed, at least for me, to get beyond the point of being two clever actors reading lines rather well on a weird set.

What actors always like, when they take on a part, is to feel they are on what they call a “journey”. They like to be a different person at the end of play to the one they were at the start. They take satisfaction in taking the audience with them as they reach this stage of enlightenment.

Alas, it’s hard to do that in a series of sketches and I certainly didn’t feel either actor was in any material way different from how he was at the start.

The 75 minutes it ran to felt very long indeed, but, when it finally came to an end, the nearby Delaunay restaurant laid on a dinner for the critics, which was a welcome, if unfamiliar, perk. It felt a bit like the stopover on an exhausting long-haul flight.

When we resumed our seats, it was Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd’s turn and there was maybe more of an edge between the two of them. Deep down, I sensed, with the somewhat sour expression on her face, Maxwell Martin never really liked O’Dowd, even at the start, and that, oddly enough, is not uncommon in relationships. Certainly it’s pretty unusual for any two people to find that they love – or even just fancy – each other in equal measure.

If Douglas and Tovey’s rendition was in the style of Beautiful Thing, then Maxwell Martin and O’Dowd were more Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? O’Dowd felt a lot more defiant than Tovey. There was much more of a sense of passion – even violence – in their relationship. Sometimes one had a real sense that O’Dowd was about to take a blow at Maxwell Martin.

Of course, every actor plays a scene in his or her own way, but ultimately actors are always prisoners of the words. Douglas and Tovey obviously had the advantage over Maxwell Martin and O’Dowd in that the words had at least seemed fresh in their mouths.

I think the second pair were on balance a lot more compelling than the first, but, in all honesty, when you know what someone is going to say, it’s hard to get terribly excited about it.

If neither of these pairings grab you or you are up for doing the whole lot, the other pairings are Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah and Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker. I might add that the understudies – and I hope very much they get to go on as they’d ease the monotonies or duopolies – are the excellent Adam Samuel-Bal and Shyvonne Ahmmad.

I left the theatre with a sense that I’d just sat in on two sets of auditions that went on for much too long. The play certainly seemed to think it was a lot cleverer than it actually was. The gay pairing is the sort of thing that would probably have been considered quite daring in, say, the early 1980s, but it isn’t remotely now.

My advice is to see Constellations once, at most. If you’re taking your other half, you could well be risking your own relationship if you insist that he or she sit through all four, which will take five hours out of your lives.

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