'Shifters' review – Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong are simply irresistible in this heavenly romance

Read our review of Benedict Lombe's dreamlike new play Shifters, now in performances at the Bush Theatre to 30 March.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Lightning would look to be striking twice at the Bush Theatre for Benedict Lombe, the Congolese-British author whose debut play Lava in 2021 went on to win the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. That solo work has since been followed by Shifters, which brought my Bush audience enthusiastically to its feet.

Told in a deliberately freeform style that allows past and present to shift seamlessly, the play has a fluid, dreamlike structure as befits its male character, Dre (Tosin Cole) – his name a shortened version of Dream. We follow the varying affections between him and Des, short for Destiny, who is played by the luminous Heather Agyepong.

One feels the influence of Nick Payne’s widely seen Constellations, another two-hander steeped in romance, contingency and grief that plays with form whilst eliciting a full spectrum of response from audiences required to lean into the writing to keep on top of its narrative byways.

When first encountered, Dre and Des are 32 and have come together at the funeral of Dre’s grandmother. Time, we’re told, is both moving and standing still, and before you can quote Einstein (as Dre rather unexpectedly does) we’ve rewound the clock half the characters’ lives to age 16.

That is the point at which they first met in year 12 at school and embarked upon the push-me/pull-you dynamic that has landed them at Dre’s nan’s service, waiting – so the writing describes it – “until they could be formed again”.

And so we ricochet through time, information parcelled out as carefully as is a gathering strength of feeling that asks whether these two are, or can be, soulmates, and what that word even means.

Strip the play to its core and you might dismiss it as an artfully attired romcom that alights on crucial moments in unfolding lives: age 18 during Freshers’ week, for one instance, or a 20th birthday.

But what emerges is a linguistic richness you don’t often associate with this genre, alongside a self-awareness that gets extended to both the mental and physical realms. (Des, for instance, is effortlessly eloquent on the engagement of his awakening corporeality interacting with the world: “a body that has been put on alert long before it fully grew into itself.”)

The production makes a virtue of the minimal. Bush artistic director Lynette Linton lends her characteristically keen-eyed compassion to a traverse set-up courtesy of set designer Alex Berry – whose only drawback is bouts of inaudibility, especially near the beginning, when Dre in particular turns his back on one side of the house.

There’s no faulting an A-list creative team that includes Neil Austin, whose overhead lighting posits a flickering constellation all its own. Sound designer Tony Gayle works alongside composer XANA’s music to enliven sonically a potentially static venture, and the two performers seem to the project born.

The irresistibly likeable Cole is a lanky, rangy presence who draws you to him from the very start. That leaves Agyepong’s careful, cautious, deeply felt Des to join Dre in an inevitable kiss that is met with an ecstatic reaction stretching, it would seem, to the heavens and beyond.

Shifters is at the Bush Theatre through 30 March. Book Shifters tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Shifters (Photo by Craig Fuller)

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