Dreaming and Drowning

Reviewer's Rating

The intimate space of the Bush studio theatre is currently home to a fine, taut, piece of new writing by Kwame Owusu, brought to life in a superlative all-round performance by Tienne Simon. The play only lasts an hour, but the emotional journey we travel is elaborate, detailed and wholly convincing.

In a sense it is two plays in one, both a coming of age drama for Malachi, a young, gay black man entering university, and and a study of the degenerative and destructive impact of anxiety and mental unrest. The action cuts between his early weeks studying English Literature at Bristol University and re-enactments of his frequent nightmares in which he believes that he is being crushed by the weight of the ocean, that the walls are cracking as water tries to break through, and that finally a monstrous creature is seeking him out.

Recording and embodying these two different worlds is no small ask, and Tienne Simon delivers one of the finest one-man performances I have witnessed in recent years. He has the task of physically representing and voicing two different realities and a huge variety of moods. He has to find voices for a broad gallery of university types, and contrasting body languages for encounters in classrooms, nightclubs, street scenes and the nightmare world of his own dorm room. It is greatly to his credit that all these people and venues are precisely distinguished from one another, so that, despite a fast-moving text, there is never any doubt as to where we are or who is speaking. His is also a very physical performance, finding most inventive ways to signify the psychological oppression and fear that he experiences. At times he even seems to be climbing the walls to escape his terrors.

Here he is assisted by the simplest of sets and the most detailed of lighting designs and sound tracks. Set designer Tomas Palmer provides what is almost literally a padded cell – a floor and wall of beige carpet with no more than a chair and a lamp to populate it. But this is more than enough for Simon to work with, because lighting designer Joshua Gadsby and sound designer Holly Khan underscore each change of mood with precisely informed signalling. A fine spectrum of blues takes us deep into Malachi’s oceanic prison, and a meticulously compiled sound track of daily background noises tells us instantly where we are in the ordinary life of Bristol University.

Lest all this sound deadly serious, let me stress that there is a lot of genuine and genuinely funny humour here which offers up an authentic slice of Freshers Week and the key moments of making early friends (and enemies). The euphoria, energy, anxieties, and self-consciousness of that unique phase in growing up are all beautifully rendered here, together with an acute presentation of racial identities inside and outside the classroom that is well observed rather than politically driven. While this is all beautifully imagined for the theatre, such is the strength of the writing that you can imagine it could be opened up into a film very easily.

Indeed that is really my only reservation: the ending seems a little abrupt and unexpected. In an evening that has generated such concentrated power you wish for a few more twists and turns before resolution.