Dreaming and Drowning review – Bush Theatre, London

Tienne Simon. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Dreaming and Drowning follows fresher Malachi, played by the affable and expressive Tienne Simon, as he manoeuvres his way through his first few weeks at university, attempting to keep his growing anxiety at bay while trying to find both himself and love. Kwame Owusu’s coming-of-age play shifts between the real and the imagined. We follow Malachi to seminars, nightclubs, coffee dates and parties, and into the recurring nightmare that has plagued him for thirty-one consecutive nights, and counting.

Malachi’s anxiety is also beginning to manifest itself physically in the elements that surround him; a crack in the plaster of the seminar room grows as Malachi struggles to contain his anger at the rich white kid whose racist literary analysis challenges the idea of unconscious bias, because who could be so socially unaware. And as he mentally wrestles his demons, they bang at his bedroom door, push in through the walls and down through the ceiling.

Tienne Simon. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

And they feel real enough too; Holly Khan’s sound design and Joshua Gadsby’s lighting design combine to make Malachi’s anxiety feel physically present. As he walks through the nightclub in a daze, shocks of light and sound make us feel the sharp pangs of panic Malachi experiences like lightning bolts.

Movement director Ingrid Mackinnon adds fluidity to Simon’s performance in the dream sequences as he swings from a height as if trying to swim up and out of the terror. Simon’s performance is strongest when Malachi is with Kojo, the more mature second-year student who is president and founder of the Black Queer Society and who, in Malachi’s opinion, has a smile that could replace fossil fuels. His body loosens, and his voice subtly rises and softens as he speaks with, and about, Kojo; he is perfect as the love-smitten young man. The Bush Theatre’s Studio space adds to the intimacy of their exchanges and the sense that Malachi is truly confiding in us. There is an incredible openness to how Simon addresses the audience in these moments.

Tienne Simon. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

His performance is less successful when he plays the people Malachi meets during these key weeks in his life as Simon struggles to define their voices. A classmate begins with an accent that is vaguely Belfast and then Dublin before slowly morphing into Scottish and, finally, American. Other classmates and acquaintances find their accents in a Gaelic flux too, sliding between Ireland and Scotland, and the seminar leader is so Australian as to be caricaturish.

Owusu, who also directs the production, creates prose that is engaging and, often, poetic, with echoes of Malachi’s hero T.S. Eliot in its depressing beauty. He is undeniably a talent but he leaves much unexplored as he speeds through the production’s final sequence. At the end, and with everything tied up much too neatly, there is a sense of having watched the beginning of a great play about what it is like to come of age as a young black queer man, rather than the full thing.

Dreaming and Drowning is at the Bush Theatre, London until 5 January

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