On Theatre

Star power in a parallel universe

West End openings of Constellations and Cinderella offer stage-starved audiences some magic

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


The return of theatre has been a choppy business — venues are still chary of committing to large-scale productions with large casts outside the doughty return of till-rattlers like Anything Goes at the Barbican.

Stage-starved audiences hanker for some more recent magic dust sprinkled with flair of — to channel Big Will — “this wide and universal theatre”. Critics have, alas, had a meagre come-back diet to choose from for intellectual ambition, for which reason the revival of Nick Payne’s Constellations (just finished a sell-out run at the Vaudeville and about to be available online) is a particular joy.

There aren’t many recent plays I could bear watching again after a few weeks but this is worth an hour and a half of your earthly time

Four separate casts playing the star-crossed lovers at the heart of Payne’s adept science-meets-romance two-hander and four separate duos, featuring Zoë Wanamaker, Peter Capaldi, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Sheila Atim, lent this run a lot of star-power, guided by Michael Longhurst, the Donmar’s artistic director.

Payne’s drama premiered in 2012, when he was in his twenties. The pain of young courtship rituals — illuminated, undercut and rendered touching and comical by fast jump-cuts — means the dialogue can perform dizzying inversions. We hear the same exchanges with lines spoken by both participants, with contrasting emphasis.

It’s a technique reminiscent of Sir Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers in its deft blend of big ideas and human emotion and infidelity. Payne’s ear is attuned to the persistent awkwardness of chat-up lines “Can you lick the inside of your elbow?” We spin off into meditations on string theory, bee colonies, free will — and ultimately choices about life and death, as Roland, a beekeeper whose organic honey is “sold in Crouch End in Budgens — it’s a very good branch” falls for the object of his desire

The play’s original duo were a man and woman, but I watched a new version in which the universe-crossed lovers are gay, with Russell Tovey (of Channel 4’s Being Human) as Roland, who exudes a jug-eared laddish awkwardness and the luminous young actor, Omari Douglas, as Manny.

This switch could have landed awkwardly, but the cast recreates the travails and joys of the story through a new prism. Pauses and elisions take on a different meaning as the two men discuss a friend’s upcoming nuptials.

It is framed by the wondrous exploratory science of the multiverse with its theory of parallel universes, comprising everything that has existed across time, space and matter. Or to put it more basically, the sense of might-have-beens and crucial near-misses which can lead to us being with one partner rather than another, splitting up or staying together and, as the seriousness of the play darkens and Manny is threatened with a brain tumour, whether to live out a life or end it.

Thankfully, the philosophy is worn lightly as the dialogue skips along and Tom Scutt’s shimmery set features a gorgeous array of white balloons (which stand in nicely for planets and atoms). When the estranged lovers rekindle their relationship at a ballroom dance class, there is a moment of expressionist genius as the conversation continues only in dance.

Those who couldn’t face the queues or get to a London theatre given the travails of this year, will be relieved to hear that filmed versions of all four casts will be available in October. So I have booked my sofa-side seat for Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd to watch Constellations in another of its re-constellations. There aren’t many recent plays I could bear watching again after a few weeks but this is worth an hour and a half of your earthly time.

Celestial luck certainly did not shine on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella with an aborted premiere after a single cast member tested Covid-positive, bringing the old stager to the verge of angry tears about the extremities of the social distancing rules for theatres.

But yes, Cinders did finally go to the ball as Cinderella, an irreverent panto-meets-musical finally opened at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. “It’s fun,” concluded the New York Times review apodictically and Carrie Hope Fletcher, with a Fairy Godmother (Gloria Onitiri) who dabbles in cosmetic surgery, lived up to the basic requirement of a romp — which is to rock our socks off.

Ample quantities of re-imaginings from the School of Mild Woke have been sprinkled on this fairytale. The result is a mixture of freshness and, to be frank, utter confusion as we meet two fraternal prince charmings (Wills and Harry moments galore) and in the same vein as Constellations, the upending of traditional hetero roles.

Ample quantities of re-imaginings from the School of Mild Woke have been sprinkled on this fairytale

The Belleville setting is cornily French in the tradition of Aristocats and Belleville Rendezvous with a slightly clumsy over-messaging that too much attention is given to the beautiful at the expense of the dowdy. Not at all like looks-obsessed musical theatre then.

Lloyd Webber divides opinion, but gosh, even at 73, he can still turn out a 100-watt power ballad with the best of them.

“Only You, Lonely You’’ is a show stopper, along with a catchy, catty number about internecine female blackmail, “I Know You.”

Rebecca Trehearn and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt give us vampish supporting roles as the Queen and Wicked Stepmother. Emerald Fennell delivers a (very) rude script with jokes about ”golden balls”. It all drags on a bit. But hey: it’s bold, brassy, noisy and crucially, for a West End in desperate need of revenues to revive, it’s open, balls and all.

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