Shifters at the Bush Theatre – review

Benedict Lombe returns with a new play

Tosin Cole (Dre) and Heather Agyepong (Des), © Craig Fuller
Tosin Cole (Dre) and Heather Agyepong (Des), © Craig Fuller

Here’s a play about belonging with someone rather than somewhere. In a white town somewhere near Crewe, at the wake for Dre’s (Tosin Cole) grandmother, Des (Heather Agyepong) turns up – or is it a turning back? It might’ve been years but the two seem starstruck, still. Des has a plane to catch in the morning, but as the two talk, everything between them starts to spill out, without looking like it can go back.

Benedict Lombe, winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Playwriting with Lava, returns to the Bush Theatre’s main space with this confident romance. Bush artistic director Lynette Linton directs snappily, with exacting attention for the couple’s echoing of each other, of their younger selves. Most affecting is how Cole and Agyepong’s characterisation stretches and flexes as Dre and Des age. When younger, they’re impatient; while Dre has a (perhaps studied) languor to him, Des bristles with a fond hostility at him. Years later, the two are looser, but firmer, too: more aware of where each stops and the other begins, aching more over it.

Lombe’s play pulls out the history between the characters, their longing and dread, what they share and what has divided them. They know each other so well it almost makes up for what’s changed since they’ve last seen each other. Agyepong’s Des is by turns prim, sheepish, hilarious, while Cole’s Dre is a master of comedic timing, a soft charmer. Both characters knew loss far before they lost each other, and Lombe emphasises the part this plays in who they are. Dre’s lived all his life in their town while Des left; while at first the play’s second-person monologues begin with him, Des takes over for the most part. Her perspective is compelling, though I found myself curious about the time Dre spent without her, left behind, and how those years passed for Des too.

Alex Berry’s design sets us up in traverse, the actors on a mostly-bare stage quietly speckled like the universe, and over the course of their relationship each remembered moment seems to glow with its own colour in Neil Austin’s lighting. Sometimes the space feels infinite, sometimes shallow and empty: it’s beautifully managed.

It’s a play unafraid to take its time, unfolding with careful tenderness Des and Dre’s drifting apart and coming back together, the feeling of ineffability to them, what happens when it seems to stutter. XANA’s composition works with Tony Gayle’s sound design to populate their lives with music – their families’ touchstones, a remix of “Take Care”, shared favourites. It also gives an atmospheric sense of both how cosmic their story feels to the pair, and how small and shy what’s between them can be at points, sometimes paring back to soft keys or guitar.

Shifters features one kiss in particular which you’re unlikely to see the equal of onstage this year. Everything slows down, and we appreciate how much work, for Dre and Des, as well as on the play’s part, it has taken to get here. It’s all the more bittersweet for it.

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Closed: 30 March 2024