A new star shines brightly in Constellations

Constellations – Duke of York’s Theatreuntil January 05 2013

The transfer to the West End of Constellations, the latest play by Nick Payne, caps what has been, by any measure, a remarkably successful year for someone oft-referred to as one of Britain’s brightest young playwrights. With a Stars that I did see at Nick Payne's Constellations (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall)bone-fide A-list actor cast in New York and clutching an Evening Standard Best Play Award for Constellations – a play wearing its learning on its sleeve and displaying an innate understanding of the mechanics of plotting far beyond Mr Payne’s 28 years – it can be difficult to tell whether ‘brightness’ is a reference to the current luminosity of his career or the marked intelligence that he brings to the theatre.

To write a play about string theory that looks to ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’ is a sizable task. Given the complexity of the topic and perceived tensions between the two schools of thought, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are relatively few plays about science and so, given the lack of comparators and the formidable confidence required to attempt such a mesh, it is perhaps inevitable that parallels will be made with Tom Stoppard.

It would perhaps be unfair to challenge Mr Payne to step into the shoes of one of Britain’s most eminent post-war playwrights but parallels can be discerned– at the age of 30 Mr Stoppard wrote an audaciously confident of his own in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’. It remains one of the few Shakespeare-inspired works of art that can be held up to its inspiration and look it straight in the eye. The ease with which real scientific and philosophical rigour is interweaved with one of drama’s most potent works is frightening.

Stars that I didn't see at Nick Payne's Constellations

To say that Constellations does not quite match that gold standard is no disgrace because Constellations is very good on its own terms. It maintains intellectual ambition whilst driving a more humanist approach to comedy that is far more modern than either the farce of Michael Frayn or the rather mannered intellectualisms of Stoppard. The resultant characters are able to display much more in the way of warmth and manage to avoid the rather calculating artifice that affects much farce.

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Funny but flawed people

All New People – Duke  of York’s Theatre, until 28 April 2012

The tone for the evening is set pretty much immediately; the music playing over the PA system is so hipster-y that you spend the first 5 minutes waiting for Zooey Deschanel to emerge from the wings wearing a vintage polka-dot dress whilst eating a cupcake. Also immediately obvious to a jaded theatre-goer is that the audience waiting expectantly is notably younger than those entering Hay Fever, the Noel Coward-revival currently playing 50 metres down St Martins Lane.

Can we go as far as to make rather-too-obvious allusions about a baton changing hands? Well, yes and no, Braff’s ‘All New People’ is his first attempt at writing for the stage and there is a definite sense that he is a little green around the edges; in Coward the jokes slip down easier than the regularly consumed cocktails that punctuate his plays, for Braff the punchlines are clearly influenced by his background in TV, harsher and with a more obvious break for audience laughter. 

However there are signs that, if Braff sticks with it, he could be a genuinely talented new comic voice for the stage. And it is a voice that is desperately needed. Comedy appears to be treading water in the West End; if you strip out the celebrity revivals (Lenny Henry in Comedy of Errors), the old-hands (the annual Ayckbourn) and the reworkings (One Man, Two Guv’nors) then we are left with a rather bare cupboard.

Braff is a talented writer and knows how to craft a gag, either verbal or visual. The play starts with a well-judged physical comedy routine where Braff, about to hang himself, discovers he has nowhere to ash his final cigarette. The rest of the play is stuffed full of decent punchlines, even if it rather too often veers towards the profane but this could be a natural reaction against the restrictions of TV comedy. Braff has a very referential and post-modern style, which judges its target audience astutely. These are characters that clearly exist in the real-world, even if it is a much abstracted one.

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