Review: BUBBLE, Nottingham Playhouse Online

The new James Graham play brings lockdown life to the stage

By: Oct. 24, 2020

Review: BUBBLE, Nottingham Playhouse Online Review: BUBBLE, Nottingham Playhouse Online Bubble is the second play in Nottingham Playhouse's current Unlocked season, which features several shows with short runs that are being simultaneously performed live in front of a small, socially distanced audience, and streamed online.

It's a new one-act piece from James Graham, starring Pearl Mackie (Ashley) and Jessica Raine (Morgan) as two women who go on an amazing first date immediately before lockdown is announced and then have to decide whether or not to quarantine together. The play shows us how their two possible options - to 'bubble' together in one home, or to stay living 'apart' - play out over the course of six months, taking us right up to this September.

It's far from the first work to tackle life under lockdown (see the BBC's Staged and Unprecedented; ITV's Isolation Stories and Untold Stories; and Netflix's Social Distance, to name just a few), nor is it the first to tackle what it means to be starting a new relationship at this time. However, seeing the characters run through both possible scenarios is a novel idea, and it's very interesting to see which of the relationship highs and lows are unique to each situation, and which occur regardless.

The script is sparky and often very funny, and both performers are clearly relishing being back on stage with a live audience. They stand on different sides of a very minimalist set (two rostra and a couple of props), moving around to distinguish whether they're 'apart' or in their 'bubble'.

The livestream only films the complete stage at the starts of scenes, giving a closer, split-screen focus on both performers the rest of the time. It's a choice that works well with this show having no real set and just two actors, who don't move around too much. The split-screen effect allows to get a close look at each performer's emotions without staring at the space between them - and given many people are watching on small screens, this is helpful for feeling more connected to the characters. I imagine this might make for a slightly different experience from that of the audience in the theatre, however.

The play covers a lot of the familiar stories from the past six months and touches on how the effects of the pandemic and other news events are different depending on factors including race and the type of job you do. Ashley runs a micropub and is concerned about the future of her business and the livelihood of her staff. Morgan is a teacher and worried about the blurring of ethical boundaries from teaching at home. Ashley is also concerned about her mum, whose job in a distribution centre makes her a 'key worker'.

At times, some of the dilemmas raised by their situation are very interesting - for example, where should Ashley go when Morgan is teaching, since they're living in a studio flat with no separate rooms? - but we don't see the resolution of all of these, which is a little frustrating.

There are also perhaps a few too many nods to the things we might all recognise (exercise with an 'instructor' in a thinly veiled allusion to Joe Wicks, the toilet roll and pasta shortages) at the expense of learning more about the characters. That's a shame, because the bits where we do see the characters learning new things about one another are the strongest moments.

Overall, however, this is a very entertaining play with two lively central performances, and even watching from home, it just feels good to be in the company of some new live theatre.

Bubble is part of Nottingham Playhouse's Unlocked season, which runs until 9 November.

Photo by Pamela Raith