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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Nottingham Playhouse Unlocked   October 2020

This new play by James Graham played to socially distanced audiences at the Nottingham Playhouse, with selected performances streamed live via Zoom. It is a fragile and light-weight romantic comedy with occasional half-hearted gestures toward being meatier, but is best enjoyed on its surface level.

A couple meet-cute and fall in instant love and lust. That both are women is hardly worth mentioning; more significant is that it is March 2020 at play's start, which gives things a now-or-never urgency, and a chaste but highly successful first date finds their phone conversation the next morning rushing toward the idea of moving in together.

At this point the play diverges into alternative time-lines. Alternating scenes show what might happen if they do live together and if they don't, and there are no real surprises.

The couple living together face a concentrated rush of all the inevitable adjustments of shared space, mismatched tastes and lifestyles, and even political opinions. The couple apart are sexually frustrated while also straining to keep alive what might as well be a long-distance relationship.

Both stories are comic with just the occasional slightest hint of darkness, and giving nothing away both stumble their ways to tentatively hopeful conclusions.

And that's pretty much it. The play doesn't really have much to show us that's not predictable or much to tell us that is news. Living together has its problems and rewards. Living apart has its problems and rewards.

That they are both women adds no particular dimension. That one is black would seem to make the arrival of the Black Lives Matter movement pose a threat to the relationship. But it doesn't, and like passing references to the Prime Minister's illness or the later relaxation of lockdown, it just serves as a handy time marker.

Once past the idea of parallel alternative stories, the playwright's dramaturgy is basic. Projected supertitles at the start of each scene tell us which reality we are in, and they are necessary because neither the text nor the performances always make that clear.

Miss a title and you could be halfway through a scene before realising which pair you're watching.

This is compounded by the decision, perhaps dictated by the Health-and-Safety people, that in neither reality do the two actors ever touch or even relate to each other. Onstage they are as likely to stand or sit facing front or in opposite directions as face each other, and onscreen they are almost always seen in split-screen solo shots with no suggestion of eye contact between them.

(There may be a point here about how, even in the same studio flat, they never really connect. But like the other hints of something serious beneath the rom-com surface it is never developed.)

Actors Pearl Mackie and Jessica Raine work with the little the text gives them and manage to find personality differences between the two women, though they are less successful in distinguishing between the two versions of their own character or finding much growth or change in either.

Bubble's title may be more appropriate than its author realised it is weightless and fragile, and exists entirely on the surface.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Bubble - Nottingham Playhouse Unlocked 2020