"Every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes." So says Marianne, the quantum cosmology researcher who forms one half of the story in Nick Payne's play, Constellations, at the Duke of Yorks Theatre.
Over the course of 70 packed minutes, Marianne's multiverse theory plays out in front of you. Chance encounters between our quirky heroine and down-to-earth beekeeper Roland flit and change before our eyes, showing the multiple directions an encounter, a conversation, a relationship, or a life can take. So we see the pair meet, fall in love, break up, stay together, all in minutely different variations. The result is a wonderfully clever, poignant and seemingly effortless rom-com; like someone took Sliding Doors and fed it into some kind of multiplier device, adding wit and charm in every phrase, and turning the performances up to 11.
The different attempts by Roland to propose, prepared script in hand, either confident or crapping himself, and the variety of reactions these parallel universes elicit from Marianne is particularly enjoyable.
Playwright Nick Payne's genius is to put big ideas into easily understandable language; or best of all, to show rather than tell. He has an enviable grip on day-to-day dialect, and a delicious feel for comedy; in darker scenes, this play offers real poignancy and some proper tear-jerking moments. If the characters themselves are occasionally hamstrung by some cliched gender traits, we didn't mind: when romantic comedy is this inventive, some obvious boy-meets-girl elements are forgivable.
Much of the joy in this gem of an evening's entertainment are in the performances by Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins. Playing different versions of the same characters really gives this talented pair a chance to show off their versatility. Spall wins some great laughs with Roland's gauche manner; Hawkins shows her skill for both comedy and deeper emotional scenes. We loved it.
Constellations plays at Duke of York's Theatre 104 St Martins Lane, Strand, London, WC2N 4BG until 5 January. Tickets range from £20 to £49.50. Visit constellationstheplay.com to find out more. We saw this show on a press ticket.