A story with more than one version of the plot is not a new idea. Yasmina Reza (author of the huge hit Art) did it with Life X 3, during which events at a dinner party pan out in three directions. And the film Sliding Doors explored the idea that our life paths are profoundly affected by trivial events, such as which train we catch. But Nick Payne's Constellations is much closer to Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in its ingenuity and grasp of alternative realities.
The poleaxing heart of Payne's 70-minute play, which has transferred to the West End as the final play in the Royal Court's season of three hits, is simplicity itself. It's a love story constructed out of seemingly random conversations plucked from the relationship between scientist Marianne (Sally Hawkins) and Roland (Rafe Spall), an urban beekeeper.
But the clue as to what really interests Payne is in Marianne's job. She is a physicist researching quantum mechanics and string theory. We learn, if you didn't know already, that string theory suggests the existence of parallel universes, many of which contain different versions of the events that exist in our own universe. It's one of those mind-expanding ideas that takes the brain of a physicist to understand. But the genius of Payne's play is that it illustrates what is, for most of us, an almost unfathomable notion – that time does not flow forward like a river, but is more usefully imagined as an infinite number of tributaries with each containing its own events.
The key here is the way in which Michael Longhurst's production vaults its audience between different versions (tributaries) of the same events – the events in this case being the conversations that Marianne and Roland have during different stages of their relationship. And with the help of designer Tom Scott's balloon-like orbs, which are lit in repeating patterns specific to each version of the relationship, Longhurst's production cleverly vaults its audience from one Marianne and Roland to the next. Clear?
Okay, never mind. Let's just say that Payne has managed the seemingly impossible by integrating a deeply moving narrative while at the same time illuminating an area of science that is impenetrable for most people. On top of that, Spall and Hawkins turn in two of the most wonderful performances of the year. Depending on which universe we have dipped into, Spall's Roland is variously charming, urbane, shy or vulnerable, while Hawkins explores the full spectrum of Marianne's neurotic and gauche personality.
Of course, if string theory is correct, there will be universes in which this play was a complete bore, poorly acted and deserves to sink without a trace into a black hole. Luckily, we live in this universe where this version is one of the most brilliant and moving shows of the year.