A remote love story seems so fitting for our times. This long-distance romance, conducted from two balconies, dramatises the desolation of lockdown but simultaneously asserts the thrill of being seen – maybe even touched – during it.
Stella and Marie are marooned inside their flats during the Covid-19 pandemic; from between the panoramic sprawl of dogs, kids and skyscrapers, they spot each other on their balconies and wave. Marie is a socially awkward loner, convinced – or convincing herself – that the world is entering a post-body age (“We are transitioning from human experience to digital experience”) whereas Stella is grounded, sociable and ebullient. The playwright, Gemma Lawrence, plays Marie, while Remmie Milner is Stella.
Directed by James Hillier, the 45-minute drama follows his previous collaboration with Lawrence on Mike Bartlett’s Not Talking at the Arcola theatre in 2018. Just as the couples in that play did not talk to each other but to us, this pair narrate their lives, desire and inadequacies, to the audience.
Their monologues are sweet, confessional, funny, and there is a literary quality to the script. One indirectly speaks to the other and, even though they stay in their own thought-bubbles for the most part, the staging mischievously undercuts this distance and brings proximities between the actors, who sit or stand snugly together (though clear of two metres), even when they are, dramatically, worlds apart.
There is an overt theatricality, too, which might have felt contrived in other circumstances but it serves as a welcome reminder of what the stage can do above digital forms, although camerawork is incorporated also. Marie is projected on a back screen so that we see the virtual version of herself that she prefers to hide behind. Theatrical artifices are exposed on stage as the actors make their own changes in lighting and sound with a central panel of switches.
Lawrence has said that lockdown has “been really difficult for a lot of LGBTQ people [who] have been forced back into homes that are hostile and homophobic”. Stella’s home life encompasses this underlying theme, although Milner brings humanity to her description of Stella’s judgmental mother.
Lawrence plays Marie’s agonised shyness with a compassionate wit while Milner infuses Stella with a cheeky charm, a fabulous singing voice and occasional vulnerability. The humour and romance of this story fizzes on stage and dissolves soon after, but it is enough to remind us of the joys of love – and of live theatre.
• Sunnymead Court is at Tristan Bates theatre, London, until 3 October and streamed live on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays