Nick Payne's fascinating play of differing outcomes in parallel universes

“But if every possible future exists, then the decisions we do and don’t make will determine which of these futures we actually end up experiencing”

Note: These are my original reviews of Constellations at the Royal Court and on transfer to the Duke of York’s.  The Donmar Warehouse production opens with four different casts at the Vaudeville in June 2021.

Nick Payne’s latest play for The Royal Court is a two hander on the possibilities of alternative actions and parallel existences. With references to string theory, quantum mechanics and relativity about which your reviewer makes no pretence as to having any comprehension, I was reminded of Charlotte Jones’ play Humble Boy, especially as the male character, Roland (Rafe Spall), is also a beekeeper and the floor of the stage is outlined in a honeycomb pattern.

We first meet Marianne played by Golden Globe award winning actress, Sally Hawkins, at a barbecue and in instant rewinds and replays, Roland changes character and is variously with his girlfriend, his wife, his wife, his girlfriend and the relationship possibilities stop there, until at last, he is unattached and there on his own. Marianne’s chat up line is about one’s inability to lick one’s own elbow and whether, if we could do so, this would reveal the secret of immortality.

So Constellations follows the permutations of Roland and Marianne in their fledgling relationship stopping every couple of pages to take that scene again with differing outcomes and reactions like a devised performance with infinite variables.  Marianne has headaches and starts to lose the words as, in obvious pain, her conversation deconstructs.  She talks science while he talks about sex with her.  She mentions that several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.  A blip in their relationship brings confessions of infidelity with someone else, or not.  After meeting up again at a ballroom dancing class, a proposal of marriage with its prelude about the role of the three kinds of bees is delivered six (well it felt like six, but was actually three) different ways.

The set is full of white helium balloons in different shapes, each with a dangling white ribbon, a pretty visual reminder of the potential planetary universe. Rafe Spall is mesmerising in all of Roland’s incarnations, gentle, more aggressive, polite, detached, leaving the audience with a spectrum of his character. Sally Hawkins shows depth and intelligence as Marianne and what is so interesting is that we believe in this composite character of differing outcomes.

Michael Longhurst handles these scene changes in universe with lights out and music without confusion or consternation.

And reviewed at the Duke of York’s

Nick Payne’s intriguing play Constellations about alternative universes blazes into the West End from the Jerwood Space Upstairs at the Royal Court. With the same cast and the same production it moves from a studio space to a large proscenium arch theatre. The design, instead of surrounding us with the white orbs of the universe is a super visual on stage where the white balloons rise to allow the actors to enter.  I found myself watching which “world” lit up on each conversation and unsuccessfully trying to decide whether this was a new universe or returning to a previous one.  The electric lightning flashes between sequences are dramatic and exciting and easier to appreciate from a distance.

The disadvantage of the transfer for me was the distancing of the actors from the audience and because of this a loss of comparative narratives. I’d recommend getting a seat towards the front of this theatre to enhance the audience experience. From a distance, and perhaps on second viewing, it felt more like an exercise for actors to devise differing outcomes in essentially similar situations. Rafe Spall gets a chance to show the range of his acting within these confines and I look forward to seeing him again.


Production Notes

Written by Mick Payne

Directed by Michael Longhurst



Rafe Spall

Sally Hawkins


Director: Michael Longhurst

Designer: Tom Scutt

Lighting Designer: Len Curran

Sound Designer: David McSeveney


Additional Credits at the Duke of York’s

Composer: Simon Slater

Movement: Lucy Cullingford

BSLBT Consultant: Daryl Jackson

Fight Director: Kate Waters

Video: Tal Yarden



Running Time: 65 minutes without an interval

Closed at the Royal Court on 11th February 2012

Ran at the Duke of York’s November 2012 to February 2013



The Royal Court

Sloane Square

London SW1W 8AS

Phone: 020 7565 5000


Rail/Tube: Sloane Square


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Royal Court

on 19th January 2012