The pandemic has had an incalculable effect on the theatre industry, the cost of which may not be known for many years, but as venues slowly reopen it has encouraged greater innovation as productions seeks new ways of engaging with audiences. When the National Theatre launched its free At Home series back in April it predicated what may yet be one of the most significant shifts in the way we consume and engage with live theatre. The hybrid model of live performance and online streaming through Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms is fulfilling a demand for culture that local lockdowns and travel restrictions continue to impede. Whether this is a temporary change as ‘needs-must’ or true democratisation of the form resulting in a longer term change to the way theatre is created and shared remains to be seen.
During the summer it has been regional theatres who truly grasped the nettle, simultaneously maximising the opportunities presented by social media and video calling platforms to produce new work in line with social distancing regulations while promoting their name in what is too-often a London-centric industry. The potential impact of this should not be underestimated and while the in-person experience is virtually impossible to replicate (although the Old Vic’s In Camera version of Faith Healer did just that), being able to watch a show from London, Glasgow, even Vancouver for a reduced ticket fee without the prohibitive costs of travel and accommodation has done much to welcome new audiences. If we want the landscape of theatre to look different in the post-pandemic world, be more inclusive of different voices and support a new generation of theatremakers then this more flexible approach to accessibility will be vital.
With a number of venues across the country now partially reopened, the theatre business model has certainly changed and last week Nottingham Playhouse began its three-week Unlocked Festival with a series of dance, music, comedy and theatre performances allowing Covid-safe attendance in its auditorium. One of the highest profile events is a hybrid production, performed in-house and live streamed over the weekend to a potential international audience – a new James Graham comedy about life in lockdown.
Bubble is described as a ‘scratch’ production, running for just three performances with minimal set and props presented in paired back style. This simplicity allows for social distancing on and off stage while foregrounding the text and the audience’s ability to remember and imagine the familiar scenarios of recent events. Like David Hare’s new piece for the Bridge, Beat the Devil, the human impact of the last few months are explored, staged against the larger canvas of political shifts, medical urgency and social change that frame the lives of Ashley and Morgan who decide after one date on the eve of lockdown whether to quarantine together.
A James Graham play is always distinguished by its impeccable structure, a strong frame that keeps the audience safely within the world of the story without ever having to worry where the playwright is taking us, while creating solid support for the development of scenarios within which the charactersisation can operate. Bubble has two supporting walls, one is an alternating ‘Bubble’ and ‘Apart’ narrative that charts opposing versions of the same relationship depending on the couple’s initial decision. The other, as in Hare’s play, is time, using the chronology of the pandemic to situate moments in the play as external realities play-out against the developing personal connection.
These interlinking effects are extremely successful in building consistent personalities for Morgan and Ashley across the two timelines while detailing the effects of claustrophobia and disappointment that being trapped at home alone or together engenders. Initially, there is a straightforward switch between the parallel plots which is replicated on stage by Director Adam Penford who spotlights the actors and has them switch places on the stage to give the audience a visual clue to the relevant scenario – also flashed as titles onto the rear wall throughout. At first the side-by-side box effect of the Zoom camerawork misses that signposting until the operator cuts to full-stage mode between scenes, but the play’s structural clarity means it is clear enough and perhaps would be even more intriguing without it, as the emotional ebb and flow between the protagonists morphs and overlaps as these two experiences emerge.
Graham also begins to explore variety within his structure to create greater complexity, running two perspectives from the same scenario back-to-back with a momentary beat between them to indicate time passing, or sometimes opposing versions of the same month have just a breath between them, as though one conversations flows neatly into its complementary interpretation. Keeping track of which part of the relationship we are in and when becomes part of the fun as neither evolves quite as you or the characters expect given they begin as virtual strangers (and in one scenario remain virtual strangers of another kind).
Much of Graham’s work in the last few years has focused on the anatomy of major institutional and societal structures, looking particularly at where power lies and how it is used to benefit those who hold it. This House and Labour of Love were concerned with the all-to-compromised business of government at Parliamentary and local party level, while Ink and Quiz considered the influence of the media and the uneven distribution of justice. By necessity and purposefully, Bubble has more in common with Graham’s earlier, more intimate work largely presented at the Finborough Theatre and other fringe venues that more sharply focused on personal interactions between individuals against a political background that less overtly intrudes into their lives.
Plays such as The Man that used a box of receipts as the basis for a revealing personal monologue and the beautiful Sons of York, about three generations of the same family navigating death and masculine expectations of grief, considered the impact of close relationships with partners and family members that are affected by external economic and social contexts but the plays themselves were not overtly concerned with exploring them. And while Bubble appears on the large Nottingham Playhouse stage, Zoom at least, gives it an intimacy redolent of these earlier works as two people navigate almost fearfully towards and around one another without any certainty about what they will find in their chosen partner or ultimately what it will reveal about themselves.
But the political still persists in the air around Bubble which, like Hare’s play, will remain a valuable insight into the day-to-day experience of the pandemic as the characters respond to its unfolding. Morgan and Ashley argue about reactions to the Prime Minister’s illness, they debate the devastating consequences for the hospitality industry, job losses and the disproportionate effects of poverty while George Floyd’s death sparks an passionate discussion in both timelines about physical participation in the Black Lives Matter protests. Much of this is managed with far more sophistication and conversational flare than Hare’s angry but clunky recitation of facts, addressing some of the biggest issues in a way that the feels natural, albeit slightly different, for both sets of characters.
Other classic Graham traits are evident throughout including plenty of references to pop culture as the couple compare opinions on Love Island and Bake Off, discuss Eurovision, dance, joke that video calling equates to the villains’ prison in Superman and check they have enough toilet roll and pasta to survive. Eight months on, we may be hazier about how odd the rapidly evolving language of the pandemic seemed in March, but Graham finds plenty of comedy in scenes where the characters try out words and phrases like ‘furlough’ ‘Zoom’ and ‘social distance’ for the first time, while mocking the idea of talking to colleagues and friends on screen before, later, becoming jaded by the intensity of living through a camera.
Ashley is perhaps the easiest character to sympathise with, at least initially, who in both scenarios is more laid back and in some ways more rational. Owning a ‘micropub’, in the bubble scenario she is clearly unnerved by Morgan’s studio flat with its lack of privacy which leads to a more contentious experience than expected. Not openly romantic, Pearl Mackie plays Ashley as more level-headed, able to stay relatively calm despite the encroachment of her personal space and better able to navigate Morgan’s changing moods and needs as time drags on. Mackie also makes Ashley seem braver in the bubble, increasingly voicing her opinions and intentions with certainty as the close proximity to Morgan becomes more frustrating.
There are consistencies in Mackie’s performance in the ‘apart’ timeline, retaining that same independence and positivity but tempered by long periods of enforced loneliness and fear of the outside that reduce some of the choices she had made in the bubble version. Mackie makes Ashley’s responses more varied as she is both inhibited by the distance from the woman she is trying to know through a webcam, leading to disagreement, but also more willing to explore her feelings as the pair develop a different kind of boldness that gives them a freedom to explore their romantic and sexual connection, something which barely figures in the parallel world of permanent proximity.
Jessica Raine’s Morgan seems less at ease with herself and her over-excitement in the early stages of both scenarios makes it harder for the audience to warm to the character. But during the play’s 70-minute running time, the performance becomes a little calmer and Morgan emerges more clearly. In the bubble strand, the initial elation and enthusiasm quickly wane as the reality of a stranger in her home becomes clear and their considerable personality, lifestyle and financial differences manifest as a growing disappointment in Morgan as Raine explores regret and obligation in her character’s responses. Later, this grows into a frustration as Morgan returns to work as a teacher and Raine introduces a barrier of fear using her role as a reason not to take more risks.
In the alternative ‘apart’ sections, Morgan is, like Ashley, both more reserved and more willing to take chances. With Graham providing a date-like structure, Raine is able to offer a version of Morgan at her best, free to display a more relaxed side to herself in the time-limited interactions with Ashley fueled by alcohol and her need for human connection. But that too changes over time and as the pair become more familiar with one another, Raine’s Morgan develops expectations and demands that her partner cannot fulfill, bringing the two versions of her summer experience in line.
It may be an urban myth, but everybody knows someone who knows someone who locked down with a stranger back in March and the ways in which Graham imagines how this story might have played-out is an enjoyable alternative to the Covid monologues. Above all, Bubble is a reminder that the events of 2020 will profoundly shape who we become, whether it be theatres finding new ways to reach their audiences, social movements making their mark or individuals reassessing their personal choices. When we eventually try to make sense of all this, Graham will be the playwright to do it.