There’s something wonderfully life-enhancing and energising about being in the presence of raw, unmistakable young talent. Dreaming and Drowning, Kwame Owusu’s punchy, richly imaginative new solo play at the Bush, delivers a double hit of such theatrical dopamine. It’s not that the central theme – mental health – is a ‘feel good’ one, but Owusu tackles it with such originality and good-hearted vitality, and it’s performed so winningly by newcomer Tienne Simon, that one comes out of the theatre exhilarated rather than exhausted.
In just 60 adrenalised minutes, Owusu paints a vivid, relatable picture of a young Black queer man struggling with crippling anxiety, and does so with a bracing command of language: witty, contemporary and at times compellingly poetic. It’s a fleet, gripping piece of storytelling further enhanced by a performance of unforced charm and pathos by Simon in a terrific stage debut.
Simon plays Malachi, newly arrived at Bristol University to read English Literature nursing a bruised but hopeful heart and a determination to “get what I deserve…find my people…fall in love”. Malachi is plagued by dreams of drowning with the entire weight of the ocean bearing down on him. He loves fantasy fiction, particularly when created by Black female authors – Tomi Adeyemi, Octavia E Butler and N K Jemisin are all name-checked – and a pleasing conceit of Owusu’s writing is that Malachi describes his nightmares and the way he perceives them to be bleeding into his day-to-day life using the terminology and imagery of that literary genre.
It’s engrossing, intelligent stuff, cleverer and more complex than it looks on the surface. Owusu directs his own work with economy and dynamism on Tomás Palmer’s simple set which dresses the playing area only with a giant swathe of nondescript carpet, a single chair and a bedside lamp. Overhead, a battery of lights (design by Joshua Gadsby) undulate, flash and pop to simulate Malachi’s sub-aquatic night terrors, and the forlorn unforgiving dawn that comes after a disturbed night’s sleep. Holly Khan provides an effective, omnipresent sound score, thrumming constantly underneath the words like Malachi’s tortured subconscious, occasionally exploding into abject terror or total joy.
Joy because Dreaming and Drowning is also about falling in love, as Malachi meets musician Kojo (“crystal-clear skin and a megawatt smile I guarantee could replace all the fossil fuels in this country”). Watching Simon morph between the two young men, one shy but enraptured, the other simultaneously warm yet super-cool, is a beautiful thing, and Owusu’s words capture with unerring accuracy the glad-to-be-alive ecstasy of the newly enamoured.
Owusu has delicious fun taking potshots at Malachi’s fellow students, predominantly white, whose attempts at racial appreciation and understanding look like patronisation, and Simon does a lovely job of impersonating them, although some of his regional British accents aren’t always as specific as they could be. If the ending feels slightly rushed, it’s partly the writing but also that Simon as Malachi is such delightful company that an hour with him doesn’t seem enough. All in all, this is a little gem and an irresistible introduction to a couple of major new theatrical talents. Like Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, the triumphant monologue currently in the Bush’s main house which also deals with male mental health and disaffection, albeit less sweetly, this is a must-see for anybody interested in fine new writing.