Bubble review – tetchy, tender tale of love under lockdown

Arifa Akbar
·3-min read

The playwright James Graham has suggested it is too early to address the politics of the coronavirus crisis head-on in dramatic form. Instead, he gives us a “Covid romcom” that captures the domestic isolation and claustrophobia of pandemic life.

On the brink of lockdown, Ashley (Pearl Mackie) and Morgan (Jessica Raine) have had an “amazing” first date just as the “whole frigging world is shutting down”. Should they take a leap of faith and quarantine together or face isolation alone? This one-hour drama enacts both outcomes in parallel narrative strands. In one reality, they end up in Morgan’s open-plan attic flat. In the other, they conduct an app-based courtship.

As a part of Nottingham Playhouse’s Unlocked festival, it was staged in the theatre and simultaneously streamed online. Sleekly directed by Adam Penford, it takes place on a stripped-down stage that mirrors the stripped-down nature of the relationship evolving on it. Online, the camera shows the women more intimately on a split screen.

As a drama, it is an eloquent survey of the past eight months with lively repartee, and it is impressive that Graham can take the over-familiar (jokes about face coverings, the horrors of shopping, and the insomnia induced by it all) to make it freshly witty, with sparky moments of insight. Reflecting on Zoom technology, Ashley says: “It’s like a historical re-enactment of talking.” Later, she observes how gardens have become the “new class divide”.

Graham has proved himself to be a master of political playwriting, with shows such as Brexit: The Uncivil War, The Vote and This House. While this is primarily written in a comic vein, there is politics here. We are reminded of Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 experience and the killing of George Floyd. Both become heated points of contention between the women, and the play flares to bigger life as a result, if only briefly. “This fucking virus, man, it’s racist,” says Ashley, as a comment on the uneven burden of key work on BAME communities, including her mother.

There is clever observational comedy in both narratives, and the two versions of coupledom push against each other, rather like the parallel worlds in The Last Five Years, but the “together” version is better investigated with all the awkward domestic intimacies, quibbles and moments of bonding.

Ashley is a classic millennial – an upbeat vegan yogi who owns a micro-pub and watches reality TV. Morgan, a school teacher, lives off white wine and espressos and is more bristly. Both actors steer their characters from over-excitability to growing tetchiness and occasional tenderness.

The nature of love and togetherness is explored, too, though perhaps with too light a touch. “What was it you liked about me?” asks Morgan as the couple sink into the fug of quotidian home life, and she dismisses love as nothing more than manipulation, though the play offers up its own happy ending.

There has been a steady output of Covid-era romances over the course of the pandemic, both online and latterly on stage, such as in Sunnymead Court, which also has lesbian love at its centre, and the recently revived Lungs, so it is all the more of an achievement that Bubble finds freshness against this backdrop. Morgan and Ashley’s relationship does not particularly gather in emotional intensity or even in romance, but it always stays joyfully warm and entertaining.

• Bubble is part of Nottingham Playhouse’s Unlocked festival.