sat 20/07/2024

Shifters, Bush Theatre review - love will tear us apart again | reviews, news & interviews

Shifters, Bush Theatre review - love will tear us apart again

Shifters, Bush Theatre review - love will tear us apart again

New play about love and memory is exquisitely written and beautifully acted

Mood music: Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong in ‘Shifters’.Craig Fuller

For the past ten years, Black-British playwrights have been in the vanguard of innovation in the form and content of new writing. I’m thinking not only of writers with longer careers such as Roy Williams and debbie tucker green, but also of Inua Ellams, Arinzé Kene, Nathaniel Martello-White, Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini and Tyrell Williams.

And every year they are joined by other talents. One such is Benedict Lombe, who won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2022 for her debut monologue, Lava, and now returns to the Bush Theatre with her latest, a 100-minute two-hander which is exquisitely written – and beautifully staged by venue supremo Lynette Linton.

Shifters stars Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong, in a story that opens with Dre (Cole), who starts by telling us: “I’m thirty-two; I’m at my nana’s wake; it’s Sunday early evening.” The party is winding down and his sense of loss at the death of his closest relative is suddenly both counterpointed and deepened by the arrival of Des (Agyepong), who he first met when they were at school aged 16, and although they have been lovers they’ve grown apart because each has pursued their own dreams of success. His is a fusion-food restaurant; hers is as an international artist. Now Des has a plane to catch next morning, but as the couple talk it seems like anything might happen.

After we are introduced to Dre and Des at adults, some eight years after they split up, we get to time travel back to see them as teenagers, living in a small northern town near Crewe. Like any Romeo and Juliet rom-com coming-of-age story, they are different: he comes from a working-class British-Nigerian London background; she is a middle-class British Congolese, the daughter of a neurologist. Part of the charm of the piece is that these differences find expression in their different musical tastes, but anyway: after a meet cute at their school’s Philosophy class on debating (she eloquent; he tongue-tied) – their mutual attraction smoulders, then dissipates, then reignites, then blazes, before being doused in the coldness of separation.

Lombe writes the story of this couple’s deeply felt bond, the sense that each feels the other is “the one”, but at the same time each is unable to live with the other for long, with both a profound understanding of emotion and a verbal elegance that lingers over sensations as well as playing with humour. It is a brilliant example of new writing which has a tight grip on form, shifting not only between different feelings but also between past and present, and also characterised by having a clear perception of the vagaries of the human heart. Some moments are very funny, others are profoundly moving. Slowly the sense of repressed trauma, unrequited love and mutual loss spreads through the text.

Mutual attraction is often a case of each individual’s pain calling out unconsciously to the pain of the other, and Lombe’s account of the relationship between Dre and Des shows how, in each couple, there are other people present. These include the parents who first showed us how to behave and relate to others, as well as siblings who shared our attempts of grow up. So the loss of parents or carers or brothers or sisters affects both the individual and echoes around their relationships, changing the dynamic of love and each person’s expectations of the other. All this beautifully suggested and enacted in the fragmented and fractured dialogues between Des and Dre.

Lombe is also good at banter, and the way that for couples some phases have an emotional depth deeper than their literal meaning. Cole and Agyepong perform this complex text with enormous charm in its lighter moments and taut precision in the more fraught passages. There’s a very good contrast between the sarcastic and snarky talk of the pair as teens and their more ample language of maturity. And although this is a story of love, it also has other themes: parenthood, grief and the experience of “living in a black body and trying to become aware of the way your body interacts with the world”, which applies – in one strong scene – especially to young girls.

This beautiful story of soul mates who seem desitined to be apart, who speculate on whether there is a parallel universe in which they could be together, who now have other significant others, ends where it started. What happens next to Des and Dre is left wonderfully ambiguous, reminding me of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets – “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past.” Yes, that sense of memory and the interconnectedness of time runs through Lombe’s highly sophisticated text, giving extra shades of meaning to almost every scene.

Linton’s production, designed by Alex Berry, is meticulously staged on a dark traverse stage, bare except for some black boxes which are used as seats but also contain some props, including two art works whose appearance has a emotional impact. The acting is excellent, with Agyepong’s anger and Cole’s nonchalance, her provocative intelligence and his flirty charm, combining in moments when each can be vulnerable as well as evasive. Although the traverse staging makes some dialogue hard to hear, and there are some confusing moments towards the end of the show, the overall effect is stunning (helped by Neil Austin’s mood-shifting lighting and XANA’s ambient music). Yes, this is the best new writing currently on the London stage.


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