Arty and scientific folk often argue that the other sort just don’t get it. Sometimes they’re right. The quantum physics thought-experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat, for instance, doesn’t say (as most of us think) that until the box is opened we don’t know whether the cat is dead or alive; it says that it’s both.
Similarly, Nick Payne’s small-is-beautiful two-hander, now deservedly receiving its West End transfer after proving a sensation in the Royal Court’s upstairs studio at the beginning of the year, does not follow Roland and Marianne through numerous possible routes of their relationship. All the routes are actual, in different manifestations of the quantum multiverse which Marianne is studying while Roland keeps bees. And if almost all the routes tend towards the same downbeat ending, that does not call into question the idea of free will; since we only know one universe at a time, we always make our own decisions to interact with circumstance.
Payne says all this infinitely more lightly. The white balloons that hang above the stage might be spermatozoa, or entire cosmoses (cosmoi?), or might simply be an emblem of the delicacy of Michael Longhurst’s production and Rafe Spall’s and Sally Hawkins’ performances. As they circle around almost the same scenes again and again – running variants of moments throughout their time together – they keep matters buoyant and above all natural. Spall’s amiably dogged Roland and Hawkins’ brasher, brittler Marianne do not show us diverse potential aspects of their characters; somehow, even as words, moods and outcomes differ, they are always the same people in the same relationship, always with (as Marianne says towards the end) the same time spent together.
Even in a house like the Duke of York’s which is small by West End standards (640 or so capacity), the play is going to feel less intimate than it did upstairs at the Court, especially as that first run was staged in the round. But it does not feel dwarfed, nor stingy at a mere 65 minutes. For in that time we are shown, implicitly, whole realms of theoretical physics and, explicitly, a wealth of facets of human interaction. It’s like a map of the entire unimaginable vista of humanity with a little arrow telling us “You are here”.