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Review: Shifters (Bush Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite




Following her award-winning debut, Lava, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Congolese British playwright Benedict Lombe was welcomed back to the Bush Theatre with the most open of arms. Commissioned by the theatre and directed by Artistic Director Lynette Linton, her new play Shifters delves into what brings people together, what pulls them apart, and how difficult it can be to leave each others’ orbit. Sharp, fast-moving and authentic in its characterisation, Shifters proves Lombe’s previous success as much more than simply a fluke or stroke of luck.


Dre, 32, is at the wake of his grandmother, the woman who he’d lived with once his widowed mother left for Lagos. After endless delays, Des, also 32, enters and the two lock eyes - they’v known each other for half their lives, through good times and agonising bad ones. With her flight back to her work abroad set for midnight, the pair take a few hours to catch up, to reminisce, and to think back to how deeply they’ve impacted one another. From here the play moves back and forth through the pair’s history, scenes from then bleeding into the now and the was the audience fill in the gaps being gradually validated corrected as we see what shaped their lives, and what details each has missed of the the other’s.

Lombe’s writing moves seamlessly in and out of flashbacks, finding a surprising number of natural segues between timelines that never feel forced or jarring. Her dialogue is refreshingly natural, with jabs and jokes flying thick and fast between Des and Dre, and this helps their relationship to feel genuine and fully realised. This is a tightly structured, intelligently written play by a writer who understands that romance and trauma are not neatly packaged moments, but the slow-building results of these characters’ lives, struggles, victories and failures. With references to their respective Congolese and Nigerian backgrounds, startlingly accurate depictions of schoolroom debates, and how two different upbringings can have striking similarities, its the authenticity and sheer reality of these characters that prove Lombe’s writing to be a welcome addition to the Bush’s impressive repertoire.


Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong give glorious performances, bringing real humanity and a clear history to the characters even before their past is shown to us. Both land jokes effortlessly and sell the affection with which Des and Dre mock one another, as well as devastating the audience in moments of rawer moments of laid-bare emotion - it’s immediately believable that this pair have been in each others’ lies for 16 years, and the actors do a tremendous job of finding the nuances of the characters, and where their personalities and interests have been shaped by their time together. Agyepong is particularly good with a sarcastic put-down, while Cole’s moments of goofy boyishness add greatly to Dre’s inherent charm - not only do they sell the longing for a love that never quite was, they make it abundantly clear why each would fall so hard for the other, and why neither could quite be the aartner the other needed them to be.

Lynette Linton keeps a firm control over the evening’s pac, the 100 minutes feeling neither too long nor too jam-packed with details. She keeps her actors’ movements simple and utilitarian, every gesture serving a purpose and their behaviour helping to establish the scale of any given space. Of course, much of thee credit must go to movement director Shelley Maxwell, who has helped shape the duo’s movements to be natural to their characters, and a true extension of their richly emotive performances.


Set designer Alex Berry and lighting designer Neil Austin work in tandem to create a bare but atmospheric staging - the stage is framed on all sides by tubes of light which extinguish and later reignite in powerful moments of dramatic change, and add an almost dreamlike quality to the non-liner, time-jumping structure. Also united in their work are composer XANA and sound designer Tony Gayle, whose use of music, its volume and its perceived diction are almost cinematic - particularly as tender moment where all is silent but for the vocal of Rihanna’s “Take Care” chorus, almost a mini music video bing made before the audience’s misty eyes.

A gorgeous, natural piece of writing from an undeniable talent, Shifters will break hearts, piece them back together again, and exercise the minds of those who choose to send their time in Des and Dre’s company. With deservedly assured direction from Linton and the captivating pairing of Cole and Agyepong, the Bush Theatre continues their run of stellar deeply human productions. Shifters will undoubtedly be see on stage again, but this electrifying world premiere run will be hard to surpass, and is not to be missed.


Shifters plays at the Bush Theatre until March 30th


For tickets and information visit


Photos by Craig Fuller


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