Bubble at Nottingham Playhouse

For our October Cog Night we watched a live-stream of James Graham’s play about the Covid-19 pandemic. Ed shares his account of the evening.

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Writers – of novels, TV shows, films and plays – are faced with a difficult decision at the moment.

Should they be producing work that addresses the seismic disruptions caused by the pandemic, or should they write material that distracts from recent events, providing an escapist break from our shared trauma?

In his new play Bubble, which we enjoyed remotely for our October Cog Night, James Graham has squared the circle and achieved both.

Graham has been at the height of his creative powers in recent years. His writing is approachable but packs a punch and he has a talent for telling important stories well. Since mid-March, he’s been a high-profile lobbyist for the arts. The billion pound bailout of the sector over the summer is, I am convinced, in no small part thanks to his advocacy.

Bubble was staged for two nights and a matinee as part of Nottingham Playhouse’s ambitious ‘Unlocked’ seasons of live-streams and in-person performances (with socially distanced audiences in the theatre).

We recently designed and built a new website for Nottingham Playhouse, so we were delighted to be able to enjoy some of their world-class work.

The play follows the relationship of Ashley (Pearl Mackie) and Morgan (Jessica Raine) who, after a particularly good first date in March, must decide whether or not to lock-down together.

We are shown alternative timelines: in one the couple hunker down together in Morgan’s studio flat, whilst in the other they remain apart and rely on social media and video calls to talk to each other.

The show was peppered with topical references to the events of the last few months. These were often played for comic effect (“Zoom? Never heard of it”), but Graham also finds poignancy in communal moments like the Thursday clap for carers.

Whilst these nods to the Covid zeitgeist were entertaining, Bubble was at its best away from the allusions to the pandemic. Its stand-out moments weren’t winks to the audience about running out of toilet roll, but the well-studied details that coloured its central relationship: ice skating on a first date, a premature “I love you”, being “sort of vegan”.

Pearl Mackie brought a dry wit to charming yet acerbic micro-pub owner Ashley, which brilliantly dovetailed with Jessica Raine’s charming portrayal of Morgan, fizzing with insecurity. Both characters were well written and exceptionally well performed.

Mackie and Raine also overcame the limitations of socially distancing staging, which could have sunk the production in less capable hands. Full marks to Nottingham Playhouse’s Artistic Director, Adam Penford, and the team for managing that.

I suspect in years to come Bubble will enjoy revival after revival. It’s a well observed sketch of the strangeness of life in 2020 that will improve with age.

For the moment though, as the country sinks into a second lockdown and the restrictions of the pandemic still dominate our lives, Bubble‘s tender depiction of two people falling in love provided the evening of theatrical escapism we all needed.

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