The QT

Thursday 16 May 2024

Review: Constellations at the People’s Theatre Studio

Sliding doors moments are just part of the premise in Nick Payne’s play, seen by David Whetstone
Marianne (Ellie Pullen), foreground, with Robyn (Cat White). Credit: Paul Hood

Most stories, give or take a chronological tweak, hang on a narrative thread with a beginning, middle and end (usually an end, although there’s always the possibility of a sequel).

It keeps things tidy and helps to answer the perennial question: “What happens next?”

Nick Payne, in his celebrated two-hander premiered in 2012, resisted the ‘orderly sequence of events’ approach.

Instead, he threw a multiplicity of possible outcomes into his play about a couple who meet at a barbecue, thereby presenting us with a dazzling constellation of ‘What ifs?’

According to one of the characters, Marianne, a physicist, all the decisions you’ve ever and never made co-exist in “an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”.

Marianne (Ellie Pullen) with Robyn (Cat White). Credit: Paul Hood

At which point some people might sidle away with their chicken leg or spare rib in search of alternative company.

Not so Robyn, a beekeeper by trade. There’s a mutual romantic attraction and thereafter they buzz in and out of each other’s lives as we buzz in and out of various manifestations of theirs.

People’s director Jess Chapman puts her own spin on the piece, giving us two female characters whereas the first production and most subsequent revivals appear to have offered a man and a woman. It really doesn’t matter.

Performed ‘in the round’, with various entry points to the low central stage, attention is focused tightly on Ellie Pullen as Marianne and Cat White as Robyn, literally giving them nowhere to hide.

Their cool mastery of a complex script is impressive and so are the lightning changes of mood and emphasis. There are no exits or entrances, no costume changes, not even an interval to signify where we are in the scheme of things.

It’s all in the acting with subtle attitudinal gear changes effected ‘on the hoof’.

Marianne (Ellie Pullen), left, with Robyn (Cat White). Credit: Paul Hood

Scenes are repeated repeatedly, if you get my drift, with various outcomes in accordance with Marianne’s assertions about those theoretical universes and something called string theory. 

Each partner is unfaithful to the other, at least offering some symmetry.

They drift apart, are reunited at a dance class and then Marianne is diagnosed with an illness that steers the action towards a tragic ending… which remains in some doubt due to those infinitesimal alternative outcomes. 

Good on the People’s for once again giving us a play much talked about but, as far as I’m aware, not seen here previously.

Marianne (Ellie Pullen) and Robyn (Cat White) in Constellations. Credit: Paul Hood

It’s a smart piece of work that in a co-existent universe might have moved me emotionally rather more than it did.

But it put me in a philosophical bent, the travails of the two women prompting thoughts of the meaning of stuff.

Also, weirdly or perhaps not so weirdly, it made me fancy a honey sandwich. At a barbecue, I don’t mind admitting, I’d probably find more in common with Pooh than with Einstein.

Constellations is at the People’s Theatre Studio until Saturday, May 18. Tickets from the theatre website.


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