Shifters at the Bush Theatre review: forget One Day, this is pretty much the perfect bittersweet rom-com

Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong in Shifters at the Bush Theatre (Craig Fuller)
Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong in Shifters at the Bush Theatre (Craig Fuller)

Forget the Netflix adaptation of One Day: Benedict Lombe’s new play is a pretty-much perfect, bittersweet modern rom-com. It flashes back and forth over the relationship between Des (Heather Agyepong) and Dre (Tosin Cole) from their awkward first meeting at school aged 16, to an emotional crux at the funeral of Dre’s beloved “Nana” when both are 32.

Director Lynette Linton draws achingly subtle, detailed performances from her two leads, which showcase the fine grain of Lombe’s writing.

Both characters fetch up in a rural town after fraught London childhoods. Des’s wealthy Congolese neurologist father became distant after her mother’s death from a brain tumour. Dre’s mother went back to Nigeria after the death of his beloved older brother.

Des becomes a conceptual artist based in America, Dre a restaurateur anchored in England by ties of blood. She’s argumentative: he’s apparently easygoing. Their different cultural heritage is significant only in terms of their differing tastes in food and music.

The audience flanks a rectangular stage hung with a curtain of fluorescent tubes, which glow in different colours depending on where we are in the timeline. Apart from this, Alex Berry’s set features only a set of black boxes from which the two unpack their past and their emotions.

Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong in Shifters at the Bush Theatre (Craig Fuller)
Tosin Cole and Heather Agyepong in Shifters at the Bush Theatre (Craig Fuller)

Cole’s Dre has a receptive, loose-limbed ease and vulnerability on stage, while Agyepong’s Des is initially more sardonic and sharp. The design, and the jump-cuts of the narrative sometimes recall Nick Payne’s Constellations (which dealt with multiple potential narratives rather then one). The characters’ full names, Destiny and Dream, suggest Lombe is a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

But Shifters marks her out as a singular voice, following the promise of her debut monologue, Lava, also staged at the Bush. Both characters cue up scenes and eras using second-person narrative (“You’re 32 years old”) which gives a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

The fragmentary, overlapping dialogue is elegantly composed. Lombe is acutely good at the conversational blurts and retrenchments that signify a couple who can’t admit what they mean to each other. Beneath the bantering surface, the play is concerned with loss, damage, and the acceptance of adult responsibility.

One major revelation about Des feels unearned, and a late medley recapping snatches of the couple’s relationship is counter-productively confusing. It may seem absurd to say it but this 100-minute show goes on just slightly too long. These are minor quibbles, though, about a fresh and delightful romantic drama, beautifully written and acted.

Bush Theatre, to 30 Mar; Tickets at