The life of bees, and even theoretical physics, are increasingly familiar tropes in fiction and the drama.
Nick Payne’s moving miniature watches these worlds collide, and the boy-meets-girl story [girl-meets-girl in this production] is refracted into infinite fragments, applying arcane elements of relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory … But you don’t even need GCSE science to share the laughter, the tears, the love and the loss of this sometimes rocky relationship.
There are constants for us to cling onto: two chance encounters, the proposal, the diagnosis. But the brilliant writing opens doors onto alternative worlds, “all the decisions you’ve ever/never made”, playing variations on a scene, sometimes subtle, like minimalist music, sometimes radical: the “no balloons, no photos” sequence, for instance, is replayed in fluent BSL. The infidelity recriminations variously involve a third party with a centre parting, dandruff or scarcely any hair at all. Fragments make increasing sense as they are replayed in context, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle slotting into place amongst the vast expanse of sky. Marianne’s aphasia is flagged early - “faith” becomes “face”, “work” becomes “walk”. But the full impact is held back until the devastating later scene.
We don’t see the forks in the road, there are no Sliding Doors, no Ayckbourn tricks or conscious choices. Not even snap lighting changes to signal the shifts – though Phil Wright’s lighting design serves the play with sympathetic sensitivity.
What we do get in Ria Milton’s finely honed production – bringing a rare, almost flawless integrity to the amateur stage - is a physical echo of the emotional changes – distance, height, body language all give depth and texture to the drama. Before the big names hit the West End and Broadway the piece played first in the tiny Jerwood at the Royal Court. There’s a similar intimacy here; Laura Bradley’s Marianne and Jennifer Burchett’s Rona are naturalistic, heartfelt creations, the bee-keeper and the honey philistine. They wear their roles lightly, inhabiting rather than performing their characters.
The striking set – designed by Nick Mayes and realised by Iain Holding-Sutton – is a window into the universe, evoking the constellations of the title, and enabling some eloquent silhouettes between the scenes.
Those moments are also marked by chanteuse Nikita Eve. Like a Greek chorus, she comments with snatches of song, chosen, with the director, to highlight the changing nature of the relationship as it ravels and unravels before us. Ingrid Michaelson’s Everybody [“wants to love, wants to be loved”] bookends the play in a cosy singalong, “Now so long, Marianne/It's time that we began to laugh/And cry and cry and laugh about it all again” encapsulates the piece so beautifully it’s hard to believe Leonard Cohen penned it long before the playwright was born, and “I will follow you into the dark” [Death Cab for Cutie] is a poignant refrain for the tragic twist to this Love Story.
As with the Greek chorus, the question is if, and how, to integrate the commentary into the action. Low-key contributions from stage right is the answer here; they worked best when the guitar was substituted for the slightly intrusive keyboard.
This is by no means a gloomy evening in the theatre The seventy-five minutes include bright joyful moments – Marianne buys Rona’s honey from Budgens in Crouch End – amid the soul-searching and the struggles.
And maybe we’re meant to share their belief that the multiverse can bring solace: somewhere there’s a world where they first met at a wedding, not a barbecue, and where the tumor is Grade One, not Four. Like the elbow-licking from Marianne’s chat-up routine, the secret to immortality. “You’ll still have all our time”, the cosmologist reassures the apiarist. And, as if to prove the point, the poignant coda is a replay of their second encounter, at the ballroom dancing class, planning to lose weight, or dance the Viennese Waltz at someone’s wedding …
Tim Minchin, quoted in Randall Munroe’s What If?,
read by Marianne in Constellations
Your love is one in a million;
You couldn’t buy it at any price.
But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves,
Statistically, some of them would be equally nice.