Constellations

Wed 27th – Sat 30th April 2016

reviews

Cameron Wallis

at 02:10 on 28th Apr 2016

0agrees

2disagrees

'Constellations' is an experimental play by the writer Nick Payne currently showing at the ADC theatre. In this production, Ella Duffy, playing Marianne, and Ed Limb, playing Roland, exhibit their exceptional talents for acting. It is clear that behind this show there is a skilled crew doing an excellent job of the music, lighting and stage design.

And so, the issue lies with the actual play itself, not with the student body behind this particular production. The reason I am unable to give this ADC late show a higher rating is because I simply did not enjoy it, and I would not recommend that you go see it.

The power of 'Constellations' is clearly meant to lie in its exploration of the innumerable alternative realities which might have arisen had choices or chance been different. At first the play is quite captivating, with the same scenes repeated multiple times and only slight differences between each rendition - though for the audience this trance-like experience soon feels like déjà-vu. Toby Marlow’s musical transitions effectively contribute to this illusion helped by the minimalistic staging, from Oscar Yang and Anastasia Bruce-Jones, and the simple lighting, from Andrew Tan and Kathryn Dodds.

However, because this is sustained throughout the show, the play becomes quite mind-numbing. In the first moments of the show - in which the two characters meet for the first time at a barbecue - Marianne uses an unusual chat-up line about elbows and immortality, and is repeatedly rejected by Roland until the show tunes into a particular parallel universe in which he is amused by her, not just weirded out. It is a scene with so much potential yet, as amusing as the repetition at first is, some tactful cutting definitely would not have gone amiss to both this scene and to all those following it. This interesting theatrical device of scene-fragment-repetition soon becomes tedious, and though the plot is at points poignantly sad, at times ticklingly funny, and at moments quite dazzlingly beautiful, the sheer repetitiveness of the play makes it maddening to watch.

The proposal scenes, in particular, should have been trimmed down. These begin quite funny and Limb really does the first couple of renditions justice. However, I simply felt sorry for this talented actor as the script demanded that he re-enact the same scene repeatedly. Proposals are some of the most poignant moments an actor can perform, but playwright Payne seems to insist upon bashing moments like this over the head, and no matter how talented the actor, the audience soon ceases to care because of this excessive recycling of material.

As one experiences each scene again and again and again, with only slight alterations each time, it becomes hard not to glance at one’s watch and think, ‘yes, yes, but the plot?’ Perhaps I am being a terrible philistine in saying this, but 'Constellations' felt like a theatrical experiment that failed. The concept fascinates me, but in practise it just does not work. Furthermore, because there are all these alternative realities happening, it all seems a bit…pointless. Of course, perhaps this is the point, but when the play finally runs out of steam, concluding on rather a clichéd anti-climax, I breathed a sigh of relief.

I would like to make it clear that the cast and crew did a truly tremendous job with the material, and I look forward to seeing their next performances. It is just a shame that they chose to put on such a terribly wearisome play. Perhaps my taste in theatre is not sophisticated enough for this 'Constellations', but I simply cannot recommend it, though I do commend this cast and crew for attempting to deal with such a challenging play.

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Katherine Ladd

at 09:43 on 28th Apr 2016

0agrees

0disagrees

A young cosmologist, Marianne, makes a stuttering remark to a standoffish man at a barbecue. Conversation falters and they part.

A cheerful Marianne tries to converse with an embarrassed man at a barbecue. He politely shuts down her chatter.

Marianne meets an amiable man at a barbecue. The two enjoy one another’s company, and something curiously beautiful begins.

Constellations follows two characters, Marianne and Roland, exploring the different lives which they lead in the multiverse where, as Marianne explains, “several outcomes can coexist simultaneously.” We follow the couple from first meeting (and then second, third and fourth) through various scenarios of betrayal, separation, marriage and illness, in a touching play which somehow feels unfinished yet emotionally satisfying.

As scenes are repeated, subtle changes to the wording of the lines or a slight change in emphasis can render the atmosphere and outcome entirely disparate. The story unfolds like a maze, twisting back and forth as new revelations shed light upon previous conversations. It taps into a fundamentally human question of ‘What If?’, offering up a quantum multiverse where “every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although it may take an audience a little while to adjust to the experimental style of the play, the acting sparkles throughout. Ed Limb is equally convincing as the Hugh Grant-esque romantic hero, the emotionally drained husband and the enraged lover, whilst Ella Duffy’s gradual transformation back and forth from a vivacious girl to despairing invalid is utterly convincing. Both performances are all the more remarkable for their ability to beckon the audience into empathy one moment and repel it the next. Limb and Duffy work perfectly together, playing off one another’s responses and pauses with astonishing sensitivity – despite the script’s highly repetitive nature, they manage to maintain a sense of momentum which only occasionally lapses.

Their relationship remains entirely believable from beginning to end as they flip between scenes of light comedy and those which are claustrophobic to the point that the mere act of watching seems a kind of intrusion or voyeurism.

This sense of claustrophobia is heightened by the minimalist set. The stage bears only two boxes for the actors to sit on and a grand piano, the white wall behind them offering an apt blank canvas. Toby Marlowe’s original score is perfect in its understated nature. The piano accompaniment becomes most prominent during Rowland’s bumbling proposal, aptly speeding up as he becomes increasingly overwrought. However, after several version of the scene have played out, the fade to soft pink lighting and gentle sustained chords which Marlow plays, as Limb delivers precisely the same lines but with gentle sincerity, make it impossible to remain unmoved.

Yet, it is the tender ending which leaves the play on such a powerfully bitter-sweet note. The heart-wrenching resolution of Marianne to ‘call it a day’ on her life is juxtaposed with an earlier scene, in which a reunited Marianne and Roland decide to ‘call it a day’ and get a drink together. This prompts us an audience to draw connections between the preceding scenes, suddenly realising that Marianne’s shy stutter in the first scene pre-empts her struggles to remember words and articulate herself in the later stages of illness.

It is easy to see why the play won the best play category at the 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Yet, it is not merely Nick Payne’s script but director Marthe de Ferrer’s interpretation and the complete conviction of the actors which make this production what it is. This is a play preoccupied by the big questions; it is an intellectual drama, searching for sense in worlds of infinite possibility, and what it might mean to make choices within them. Humorous and heartbreaking in turn, Constellations is well worth going to see. Besides, somewhere out there is a version of you watching it anyway.

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Comments

Nicholas Ashurst; 28th Apr 2016; 16:30:21

This comment is in reference to Cameron Wallis' review:

Hey Cameron, I think your review shows a remarkable lack of understanding and is hugely unfair. To start with, when reviewing student theatre, it's very unfair to review it in terms of the script unless the script has been written by the students. You haven't criticised the cast or production team at all, and yet all their hard work is getting three stars? This isn't really the place to be reviewing the script - that's for literary circles or theatre critics when the play first came out. Your job is to review the production. Of course, you could argue that the production failed to overcome the difficulties in the script, but it's unfair to give it such an unfair rating on the basis of something they had no control over.

Secondly, regarding the script itself, I think you're right in saying your 'taste in theatre is not sophisticated enough. That much is obvious. Claiming that proposal scenes are some of the most poignant scenes an actor can take on is laughable - do they really require any depth at all? Also your questioning when the plot is going to kick in shows a remarkable lack of understanding of theatre. Pretty much anyone involved with theatre will tell you that the plot is NOT the most important thing at all. Scorsese said something like 'I hate plot but I love story'. Many of the greatest works of theatre and film have very little plot - I doubt anyone would consider Chekhov, or Kane, or Crimp to have much 'plot' and yet they undoubtably wrote some masterpieces. That you prize plot above anything else is such a backwards view. Also, how was the ending cliche? I won't go into details because of spoilers, but stop throwing buzzwords around and justify yourself.

This is an incredibly unfair and surface level review. I'm not claiming the play and the production was perfect (though it was very very good, well done to everyone involved!), but that they deserve a more nuanced review that actually deals with what they've put together. This is not the place to be reviewing the writing. This isn't English Literature, this is theatre.

Cameron Wallis; 28th Apr 2016; 17:25:41

Hi Nicholas,

I appreciate your feedback and read your similar comment on TCS's review of the show.

I disagree with your rather dogmatic suggestion that it is unfair to review student theatre upon the script unless it is written by students. In the same way that it is possible to have 5 star scripts mutilated by 1 star acting, it is possible to have 1 star scripts impressively handled by a 5 star production. The purpose of a review, in my view, is to offer an honest reaction to the show as a whole - and both the script and the production are vital to one's enjoyment (or lack thereof). On this basis readers can pay money to go and see the show - the crucial basis being overall enjoyment of the show.

I did not wish to cause offence to those involved in this production, and I tried to make it clear in the review that I was impressed by the skilled cast and crew. But I stand by my view (and, Nicholas, please bear in mind that this is only my view; I am not some transcendent arbiter of theatre) that I would not recommend this show to the paying public. With a better script these talented, and evidently hardworking, thespians could have extracted a 5 star from me easily. But the script is rubbish.

I am not under any obligation to write a glowing review for a show I did not enjoy. The student theatre scene is absolutely fantastic at Cambridge. When I come out of a show with my mouth hanging open in utter awe - which really does happen - I give it five stars. I'm afraid I did not react to this show in that way.

Nicholas Ashurst; 28th Apr 2016; 19:06:29

Thanks for your reply. I replied on TCS pretty much what I would reply here, so just take a look over there.

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