Theatre review: Constellations at Theatr Clwyd in Mold

Constellations is 75 minutes of the most exhilarating theatre you could ever wish to see, a piece of work that demands your attention from start to finish as it deals with serious existential issues even though it is in essence a tender-hearted romantic comedy.

This two-hander from British playwright Nick Payne was first premiered in London in 2012 and has since had successful Broadway and West End runs attracting stars of the calibre of Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Peter Capaldi, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Wilson, Zoe Wanamaker among others.

I find it difficult to believe that any of those illustrious names captured the essence of the characters of physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland better than Gwenllian Higginson and Aled Pugh manage to achieve in this absorbing production directed by Theatr Clwyd regular (both on and off stage) Daniel Lloyd.

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One’s curiosity is immediately piqued as the unusual setting is slowly revealed as what is essentially a light installation (inspired work by set and costume designer Hayley Grindle and lighting designer Jonathan Chan) which cleverly conveys a sense of both an infinite galaxy and a heavenly vista.

And while we are brought to earth quite abruptly as we witness Marianne and Roland meeting for the first time at a barbecue, that idea of the characters being two points of light in a vast universe begins to take on a sharp relevance as the same or similar events begin to unfold across a series of multiverses - although not the kind we have become used to in recent Marvel films and TV shows!

This manifests itself masterfully as scenes and lines are frequently repeated by the two actors but delivered in completely different ways to give many changes of emphasis and often a series of alternative outcomes especially when their characters occasionally swap places and dialogue (on one memorable occasion they repeat a scene in Welsh rather than English).

If you are as fascinated by the art of acting as I am, in addition to watching the way this impacts on the relationship between the two protagonists, it also provides a fascinating insight into methods of performance when they are employed by two people as skilful as Higginson and Pugh.

You do have to pay attention but this is no chore because the quality of writing and performance is such that you find yourself hanging on their every word and I loved the way some of the complexities of their respective professions is woven into the interchanges between them not least when the structure of a bee colony becomes the basis for a proposal of marriage!

In lesser hands, all this technique could potentially come across as a bit gimmicky but Higginson and Pugh craft beautifully drawn characters we come to truly care for and desperately want to see commit to each other romantically not least because they end up having to negotiate significant obstacles in life, some of their own making, others out of their control.

This leads to a much darker second half, the details of which I will not go into, where the subject matter is all too devastatingly real but in its own way is every bit as compelling as the multiverse discussions which take place earlier on.

Thankfully, though, the central conceit of Payne’s concept is flexible and imaginative enough to ensure there is always a way of guaranteeing an optimistic note can be struck to end things on a convincing high.

Constellations - which is presented without an interval - can be seen at Theatr Clwyd until May 25. It will then be presented in a Welsh language version as Cytserau which can be seen on June 7 and 8 before embarking on a tour of Wales.

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