Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd in Constellations (Photo by Marc Brenner)

‘Constellations’ continues to triumph with new acting pairs in the multiverse

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The inspiring multiple-cast run of Nick Payne's multiverse play Constellations continues to wow in the West End. Us lucky critics have already seen two pairs - Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, and Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi (reviewed here) - as cosmologist Marianne and beekeeper Roland. In Payne's skilful dramatisation of the infinite variations in parallel universes, the couple variously get together or don't, break up for different reasons, get married or don't, and face a major health crisis.

Now, it's the turn of the first same-sex casting, Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas, and probably the starriest pair yet, Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd. Once again, Michael Longhurst's impeccable revival (with vital creative work from Tom Scutt, Lee Curran and David McSeveney) shows the strength of this piece, which is powerful in every single reading, but flexible enough to allow for fascinating new interpretations.

With her lightning-fast delivery and expressive face, Maxwell Martin conveys Marianne's brilliant mind perhaps best of all the performers in this season - and how that sometimes leads to a certain social awkwardness, as she shoots out a joke, then pulls an agonised expression when it bombs, or flips into hysterical giggles. It also makes the loss of that facility due to illness particularly horrifying: it's such an essential part of who she is. In the later scenes, Maxwell Martin accesses a raw agony.

O'Dowd is her charming opposite, all warring insecurities and physical tics. There's perhaps an overreliance on bits of business (tying of shoelaces, doing exaggerated exercise warm-ups), but a neat example of how connection can click when two people are in the same headspace: on one date, O'Dowd's Roland is more drunk and Marianne, hot-tempered in Maxwell Martin's reading, quickly grows irritated; in another, they're both merrily tipsy and it eases them into further intimacy.

O'Dowd lands the comic moments expertly, such as Roland having his mind blown by the notion of cosmic predestination, or suddenly finding there's an alarming audience for his fumbling proposal. Both actors could project their performances a little more, but there's plenty to enjoy here.

However, for me, the out-and-out winner of this quartet is the pairing of Tovey and Douglas - the latter building on his superb work in recent TV hit It's A Sin. Douglas makes the most radical choice with the academic character, here changed from Marianne to Emmanuel: instead of making him prickly and closed off, he uses that brilliance to be playful and flirtatious. 

Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey in Constellations (Photo by Marc Brenner)

There's an immediate heat between the two men, even as they tease out that extra layer of whether the other man is queer; Tovey refers first to a wife, then a husband. The elbow-licking opening salvo has never seemed quite so sexy, and the honey exchange is given a simmering subtext, along with little touches and articulate body language that conveys so much more. Their first kiss is all smouldering intensity; the marriage proposal draws cheers and applause.

The sheer authenticity of that emotional connection raises the stakes of the whole play: you invest in them not just because you want this couple to beat the multiverse odds, but because you care about them wholeheartedly. And though of course our society has improved immeasurably when it comes to LBGTQ+ acceptance, there's a slight sense of fragility - that it's even more special when they find each other, and such happiness, and its potential loss is all the more tragic.

There's also the most exciting variation here between each repeated scene, with both actors taking big swings - whether leaning into the darker conflict, including a moment of shocking violence, or revealing new shades of each character. The dancing sequence is a highlight, as is the sign language scene, and, later in the story, their wrestling against a terrible inevitability feels utterly human, and universal.

This experiment has been an absolute triumph: a creative response to Covid necessity, and a reminder of the boundless magic of theatre. Bravo.

Constellations is running at the Vaudeville Theatre until 12 September. Book tickets to Constellations today. 

Photo credit: Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd in Constellations (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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