PATRICK MARMION reviews Constellations

A love story with starry quality: PATRICK MARMION reviews Constellations

Constellations (Vaudeville Theatre, London)


Verdict: Super cosmic rom-com

Constellations is a multi-dimensional love story by Nick Payne, written for two actors and set in an infinite number of universes. 

The beauty of it is that you can cast almost anyone, of any age; and there may be no upper limit to the number of stars you could fix in its firmament.

Kicking off this Donmar Warehouse production, being staged at the Vaudeville, we have Zoe Wanamaker and former Doctor Who actor Peter Capaldi; and Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah.

Coupling: Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker. The beauty of it is that you can cast almost anyone, of any age; and there may be no upper limit to the number of stars you could fix in its firmament

Each pair takes turns, in different performances to play a couple who meet at a damp British barbecue. (Still to come is Motherland’s Anna Maxwell Martin, performing with comedian Chris O’Dowd; and Omari Douglas and Being Human’s Russell Tovey.)

Written in 2012, Constellations is a very special kind of rom-com which sets out different versions of multiple scenes between a beekeeper (him) and a cosmologist (her). They resist each other at first, then get together. They move in, move out, get married, fall ill, get better, grow worse and try to face a bitter end for one of them in an unnamed clinic abroad.

In one way, it’s a baffling Rubik’s cube inspired by quantum physics and the idea that we live not in a single universe but in a ‘multiverse’ of infinite worlds.

Here, every possible variation of every possible moment in our lives is played out in other dimensions. It may sound baffling but it taps into the infinity of our everyday hopes and fears. Even better, it’s a gift for actors to showcase their talents. Capaldi and Wanamaker bring gravitas to the equation. He is wry and lived-in. She is strident yet secretly needy. But some things in the play, which was written for younger actors, don’t work so well for them.

I suspect bus-pass holders of Capaldi’s age do mind sleeping on the floor; and women Wanamaker’s age don’t move in with 24-year-old boys they have just met. It runs better for thirtysomethings Jeremiah and Atim. 

Ivanno Jeremiah and Sheila Atim are pictured above. Written in 2012, Constellations is a very special kind of rom-com which sets out different versions of multiple scenes between a beekeeper (him) and a cosmologist (her). They resist each other at first, then get together

There is more life ahead of them; the stakes feel higher. Her illness is more shocking; and that makes them a more moving combination of lovers.

The play is given a dreamy quality by Tom Scutt’s design, featuring a galaxy of balloons overhead — like stars, or a scattering of atoms. One scene is performed in British Sign Language, which adds an eerie interlude.

It’s a beguiling 70 minutes that could run and run, with different actors, in a pan-cosmic groundhog day. Perhaps that is already happening in another dimension.

Catch Daniel Mays and David Thewlis in a revival of Harold Pinter’s 1957 play The Dumb Waiter online at London’s Old Vic. This is the one about two hitmen waiting to do a job in the former kitchen of a Birmingham cafe.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is cunningly cast as a Laurel and Hardy double act, with undertones of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Mays plays the clammy, cheeky, Hardy-ish one, getting increasingly stressed out during the 45-minute sketch.

Thewlis is the lean, leathery, Laurel-ish old hand, trying to suppress misgivings of his own. They make Pinter’s mannered, sometimes illogical dialogue seem effortlessly natural. And Hyemi Shin’s dingy set lends the atmosphere of a death-row cell. Pinter’s gallows humour at its best.

Until tomorrow night; tickets from oldvictheatre.com. For more reviews, see Mail Online.

Also opening….  

Piaf (Playhouse, Nottingham and touring)


Verdict: More Julie Andrews than Edith Piaf 

There’s too much Julie Andrews in Jenna Russell’s turn as Edith Piaf in Pam Gems’s 1978 portrait of the rough as gravel French chanteuse. 

Piaf was, after all, a punch-yer-lights-out street prostitute turned cabaret singer, discovered caterwauling in Paris’s red-light district in the 1930s.

Supposedly born on the pavement, Piaf possessed an extraordinary voice that put the gutter into guttural. Although she became a global icon, her life was marred by serious injuries in two car crashes and the loss of a lover in a plane crash. 

Dependence on booze, pills and heroin led to breakdowns…and the death of the woman they called ‘The Little Sparrow’ at the age of 47.

Hardly a noun goes unaccosted by an expletive in Gems’s garrulously demotic script — although sometimes that noun is an expletive already. But there are more lyrical moments, including a duet with Piaf’s friend Marlene Dietrich on Ma Vie En Rose, an achingly lonely rendition of If You Love Me, and a whopping finale, Non Je Ne Regrette Rien, calculated to make the spine tingle.

Olivier award-winner Russell certainly brings terrific musical theatre pedigree, as well as capturing Piaf’s crabbed body language and furtive demeanour. But I wished she’d tossed caution into the Seine, in a show that feels more like a music hall caper than a seditious Left Bank cabaret.

Even so, I tip my beret to Adam Penford’s ambitious production, featuring a billboard scaffold with the singer’s name in lights above peeling posters declaring her derelict legend.

Supporting acting and singing is variable but Laura Pitt-Pulford as Dietrich and Sally Ann Triplett as Piaf’s hooker friend Toine add style and swagger.

The company are challenged by having to stoke a sparse, socially distanced audience, but maybe with full houses after July 19, Russell will feel emboldened to be that bit more raucous.

Patrick Marmion  

Even so, I tip my beret to Adam Penford’s ambitious production, featuring a billboard scaffold with the singer’s name in lights above peeling posters declaring her derelict legend

The Invisible Hand (Kiln Theatre)


Verdict: Global economics for dummies

Global economics isn’t often the subject of a play, but who knew it could be so watchable — and mordantly funny, too? 

In this revival of US playwright Ayad Akhtar’s political thriller (first performed at the Kiln in 2016 and again efficiently directed by Indhu Rubasingham) we follow the fortunes of hostage Nick Bright (Daniel Lapaine).

The American banker, languishing in a cell in rural Pakistan, is told he can buy his freedom by raising $10 million on the stock markets for the captors’ cause.

This sets up an intriguing relationship between the banker and his guard Bashir (Scott Karim) who, under Nick’s instruction, makes the deals on a computer.

But who will decide Nick’s fate — his captors, or the whims of the market?

It’s a clever framework within which Akhtar examines meaty subjects including the ethics of capitalism, western imperialism, global economics and personal greed, and the writer slips in a lot of information.

The play’s title, which refers to the checks and balances inherent in the market (it may make some laugh ironically), is deftly explained, as is the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, which established the US dollar as the standard for international money exchange.

Or, as Bashir might put it, a system for establishing fiscal control over developing countries such as Pakistan.

We see young guard Dar (Sid Sagar) flirt with capitalism under Nick’s tutelage, and we begin to have our doubts about the altruism of Imam Saleem (Tony Jayawardena).

Bashir, meanwhile, discovers the addictive allure of playing the markets. ‘Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered,’ cautions Nick, quoting a Wall Street maxim about controlling greed. ‘Not in Pakistan, mate,’ replies Bashir.

Akhtar increasingly skews the evening towards melodrama as Nick seeks to exploit the divisions he notices between his captors, which frequently erupts into violent conflict.

We of course know where this is going, but Akhtar keeps us guessing how we will get there.

Until July 31

Veronica Lee 

To hear revivals of two Mozart-Lorenzo Da Ponte collaborations on consecutive evenings is the height of luxury, especially as each is a feast of good singing.

If a clear winner emerges, with no need for a penalty shoot-out, it is partly because one production is so clearly superior: Nicholas Hytner’s staging of Così Fan Tutte, with Vicki Mortimer’s ingeniously adaptable set, is a delight from first note to last.

As the old roué Don Alfonso, who bets two young friends that their ‘true’ loves can be seduced by others, the great Alessandro Corbelli manipulates the action with magnificent aplomb, regaling us with a fine trill on the way. He is aided and abetted by lovely Korean soubrette Hera Hyesang Park as the maid Despina, a minx who adopts two disguises to overthrow her two mistresses’ fidelity.

The lovers are a well-balanced quartet, Ida Falk Winland overcoming the fiendish difficulties of Fiordiligi’s arias, Julie Boulianne charming as younger sister Dorabella, Korean tenor Konu Kim lacking only a trill as Ferrando, British baritone Huw Montague Rendall displaying a beautiful tone as Guglielmo.

Covid precautions deprive us of the chorus, which means one regrettable cut, but conductor Riccardo Minasi moulds the ensembles with an expressive baton and the period orchestra plays well.

What a contrast at Covent Garden, where it is a contest as to which is more exasperating, Kasper Holten’s clever-clever production or Es Devlin’s irritating set with endless doors and staircases, a constantly rotating target for tedious projections. The entire evening is so oppressive and it ends lamely.

The main compensations are Erwin Schrott’s familiar predatory Don Giovanni and Adela Zaharia’s superbly sung Donna Anna. Nicole Chevalier is fully committed as Donna Elvira and Frederic Antoun as Ottavio essays stylish decorations in his arias.

Gerald Finley, who would make a natural Don Giovanni, sings and acts intelligently as the Don’s comic servant Leporello, but anyone who recalls Geraint Evans will not be convinced. As Zerlina and Masetto, Zuzana Markova and Michael Mofidian are pallid.

In the pit, Constantin Trinks begins lumpily but warms up to engage stylishly with chorus and orchestra.

Tully Potter 

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