Premiering as part of Nottingham Playhouse’s Unlocked Festival, James Graham’s new play Bubble addresses that most topical but previously unforeseen romantic dilemma: how can your fledgling relationship survive a pandemic?
The festival marks the theatre’s first opening since March, and the production – staged to a socially distanced audience and livestreamed – is by necessity stripped back. But the back-to-basics, scratch night vibe works well with the piece, which, like most of our lives right now, is heavy on conversation and low on action.
Pearl Mackie and Jessica Raine are Ashley and Morgan, two women who, after years of dating disappointments, find they have made a real connection. But is one great date enough to justify what might seem a crazy decision – to lockdown together for the duration? What will be better for a relationship that’s only just started – being thrown in at the deep end, or separated possibly for months?
Graham’s clever script switches between two realities: one where the women locked down together, one where they stayed apart, and shows the pleasures and frustrations of each scenario. While it often utilises the contrast for comic effect, it also realises that either decision involves navigating a new world and that isn’t an easy thing to do, and that the one constant in lockdown is imagining everyone else is doing it better than you are.
While the piece doesn’t shy away from the obvious jokes (this weird Zoom thing will never catch on, LOL! It’ll all be over by summer! *insert audience’s bitter laughter*), it also doesn’t shy away from the heavier issues. It’s smart on the emotional toll of the pandemic and the pressures of a relationship put into fast forward. It’s particularly deft at capturing the sheer strangeness of the period and how it distorts both time and emotion, how this year seems to have simultaneously stretched to infinity and yet whole months have vanished in minutes (when they do the inevitable ‘competitive clapping for carers’ bit, it actually took me a moment to remember that was a Thing We All Did only a few months ago.)
Importantly, the production recognises that not everyone’s pandemic experience is equal and that COVID wasn’t the only thing that happened this summer. When the Black Lives Matter protests erupt, the couple must face the fact that in a mixed-race relationship, even the most well-meaning white person has a different perspective from their partner. It also acknowledges economic and geographic disparities and that for some, the idea of being told to stay home is not a trial but a fantasy – that plenty of people were still going out to work every day, often for low pay and with little protection.
With a compact running time and zippy direction by the Playhouse’s Artistic Director Adam Penford, the production never sags and doesn’t strain even the most lockdown-fatigued attention span. But such a relationship-focused piece stands or falls on its cast, and luckily Mackie and Raine bring bags of chemistry and charm to the party. Awkward, funny and vulnerable, they are relatable as flawed but basically decent individuals and together form a couple you can’t help but root for. They use the almost empty stage and minimal props so well it never jars that two people who are living together are always two metres apart. Indeed, the stagy separateness feels apt at a time when so many of us are living through our screens, constantly watching the world at one remove.
Bubble ran at Nottingham Playhouse from 23-24 October. Unlocked Festival continues until November 7th. More info here.