Bush Theatre has commissioned Benedict Lombe following her Susan Smith Blackburn prize-winning debut play Lava in 2021. 

This time Benedict writes a tender two-hander following the concept of ‘the one that got away’. Dre and Des now in their thirties have known each other and had an undeniable chemistry since they were sixteen but timing hasn’t been on their side. As they reunite in the present day the audience hang onto their intimate conversations and comfort in each other. Watching SHIFTERS, we wonder if this is real love or the fantasy of reminiscing what once was. 

Benedict Lombe’s one-act play bounces between the past and present to tell the couple's story. Meeting in philosophy class the teenage sparks fly but their arguments settle into a deep understanding and exploration of each other. 

The time-hopping means the audience doesn’t see their relationship play out in a linear line, we aren’t ever certain that they will end up together despite seeing all the possibilities. There are audible gasps and calls out from the invested audience as the scenes flick between curious young sweethearts and fierce adults. The fragmented storytelling frequently simmers the pair into a boiling point. 

The play dissects what it means to give love beyond wanting to feel it back, the intricate body language of caring for someone in their darkest moments, the selflessness of listening to trauma despite revelations being painful and the romantic joy of sitting in adoration. The language is poetic, the characters come in and out of scenes and narrate their nuances. The complexities of their timeline are further pushed by personal stories. Des is panicked, Dre sits in grief. Both characters are fragile but take a great deal of care with each other. It feels meant to be yet full of fear, Lombe has written a beautiful piece of sensuality and devastation. 

Directed by Lynette Linton and performed in traverse on a sleek set by Alex Berry, the raised space feels like it belongs to the story, the minimalist lights washing the stage in and out of romance. The energy between the pair is always engaging, the detail in their intricate interactions with each other is transfixing. The choreographed use of boxes and the characters' familiarity with their belongings, their music and the art Des makes lends itself perfectly to the story.

Heather Agyepong’s performance as Des is soft and vulnerable yet full of fire and excitement to leave her past behind. Tosin Cole’s Dre is sweetly wrapped in his love for Des and a deeply moving commitment to his family. These two actors have a chemistry I haven’t seen on stage before. Their execution is faultless. 

It's heart-wrenching. It’s unapologetically romantic and is the black love story that’s been missing from the stage.

It runs until 30 February.


Review: Nicole Botha