Shifters review – drama of first love lost has giddy kisses and real heart

<span>Love and fate … Tosin Cole as Dre and Heather Agyepong as Des in Shifters at Bush theatre, London.</span><span>Photograph: Craig Fuller</span>
Love and fate … Tosin Cole as Dre and Heather Agyepong as Des in Shifters at Bush theatre, London.Photograph: Craig Fuller

Would you want to revisit your first love? Does its memory fill you with regret or relief? And will this original attachment always remain special in some sense? These are some of the questions asked in this meet-cute.

Or rather, a meet-again-cute, because Dre (Tosin Cole) and Des (Heather Agyepong) were brought together by the school debating society and are now meeting again, eight years after splitting up. He is a Brit of Nigerian heritage, hailing from a council estate. She is British Congolese and the middle-class daughter of a neurologist.

She has become the artist she always wanted to be; he too has fulfilled a dream. Everything has changed between them, and yet nothing as they slide back and forth between the present and memories of a shared past.

Written by Benedict Lombe, who won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2022 for her debut monologue, Lava, this is a duologue, told alternately from Dre and Des’s perspectives. Billed as a different kind of love story, it is not exactly that: there are more than a few shades of Nick Payne’s Constellations in the non-sequitur narrative that chops up their romance, and perhaps even notes of the Netflix drama One Day.

Yet Shifters builds its own distinct world and organically incorporates ideas around abuse, grief, family trauma and the Black body alongside its questions about love and fate.

Directed by Lynette Linton, the pace at first feels meditative, and this allows the romance to fire up from its depths.

Cole, known better for his screen roles, proves he is as adept on stage, while Agyepong is full of fire. They capture the awkwardness of young love, and of what is unsaid when they meet years later. Sarcasm covers for teen shyness, sexual tension morphs into bathos, disagreements about Nigerian or Congolese music are proxy flirtations. There is ardour beneath it all and when the pair kiss, it feels real, giddy.

Related: Lava review – a captivating, continent-spanning one-woman show

Alex Berry’s set is mostly empty but for a few low stools, glowing strip lights and shiny black floor, which give it the look of nightclub that’s sticky underfoot. But this design gathers symbolic resonance when the stools turn into boxes, opening to bring back blasts of this couple’s past. The strip lights around the traverse stage change colour with each flash of memory and lend the drama surreal edges.

The play’s structure has clever loops, but alongside this overarching concept is real heart, soul and the everyday tragedy of long-lost first loves.

• At Bush theatre, London, until 30 March.