Aesthetically, Constellations presents a glittery, ethereal wonderland: a glossy black floor beneath a canopy of dried flowers. Designer, Isabel Hudson, and Lighting Designer, Benjamin Brockman have produced this sleek backdrop for what is, unfortunately, a formulaic and derivative play, pouncing on the Sliding Doors/Everything Everywhere All at Once trope to unfold various derivations on a stale boy-meets-girl plot.
Marianne (Catherine Văn-Davies) and Roland (Johnny Carr) play a physicist and beekeeper who meet repeatedly at a multiverse barbecue. An undergraduate understanding of quantum mechanics is pasted onto the dialogue as explanation for why we endure permutations of their connections, or lack of them.
The director, Ian Michael, uses the staging and lighting well to indicate each reset, plunging into darkness and flash repositioning his actors. It is seamlessly coordinated, and the warm pulsation of stars/bees works to frame the characters’ intimate moments. Sound designer, James Brown, creates yet another exemplary score of moody ambience.
Văn-Davies and Carr do their best with the material, yet the repetition soon becomes tiresome, and real acute emotion is undercut by farce. What could have been a fascinating dissection of life choices fails to land. Just when a scene has the potential to be arresting it chops to another – sometimes with a hard U-turn and implausible whiplash, such as a reality where Roland is aggressive and completely out of character, and another scene which is performed inexplicably in sign language.
Nick Payne’s script has won numerous accolades, including the 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play, making Payne its youngest recipient. Perhaps it is a kind of gauche naivety that grates on the more cynically inclined, but clearly delights the romantics in the audience. Marianne, the physicist, and Roland, the beekeeper, seem to be puppets for an old-fashioned, deeply conventional story that Payne wishes to tell. Their professions substitute for personality and the contrivance of the sleight-of-hand plot gives the hapless couple obstacles to overcome only to have them start back at the beginning. Nothing feels organic or complex.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: ‘Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader [in this case, viewer] may see what they are made of.’ Watching poor Văn-Davies have to clown through a scene about not being able to lick your own elbow like some manic pixie dream girl, when the character is a professional physicist, evokes incredulity.
Constellations is slick and pretty and light; fans of “quirky” romantic comedy will find plenty to enjoy.
Constellations by Nick Payne
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1 Theatre
Walsh Bay, Sydney
Director: Ian Michael
Designer: Isabel Hudson
Lighting Designer: Benjamin Brockman
Composer and Sound Designer: James Brown
Assistant Director: Pratha Nagpal
Fight Director and Intimacy Coordinator: Nigel Poulton
Associate Voice and Text Coach: Jack Starkey-Gill
Cast: Johnny Carr, Catherine Văn-Davies
Constellations will be performed until 2 September 2023