BWW Review: UNKNOWN RIVERS, Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead Theatre sees the world premiere of Chinonyerem Odimba's Unknown Rivers, directed by Daniel Bailey with profound trajectory. A new play about friendship, mental health, and motherly love, it follows 19-year-old Nene (Nneka Okoye) as she struggles after a horrifying incident.
Her best friend Lea has been visiting her every week for five years now because the girl barely ever leaves her house. On a rare day out, Lea (Renee Bailey) and Lune (Aasiya Shah) attempt to give Nene the chance to be youthful and carefree again. Meanwhile, Nene's mother Dee (Doreene Blackstock) is at home, worrying about her baby and the reflecting on the burdens of motherhood and her daughter's isolation.
Odimba tackles the issue with her recognisable poetic style. With Nene, she presents a young woman who's as afraid of the outside world as she is of herself. She is stuck in a journey that was imposed on her and that she didn't have the power nor the tools to fight. A constellation of equally damaged characters surround her, allowing the playwright to shine a light on the universal qualities of the struggle. While the ultimate goal of the play is as noble as it gets, the fervent reflections of the trio sometimes come slightly out of the blue and lead them onto rant-y tangent.
These, however, turn the piece into a jolting wake-up call of lyrical beauty. It's rich with myth and folklore with Dee's storytelling virtues. The dreamlike essence of the tale suddenly grows into a tangible presence in the show even thanks to brilliant staging and Amelia Jane Hankin's set design. Okoye's passion is visible from the very start in Nene's insecurities, which then shift when her love for life is reignited by her friends.
Shah shapes Lune in an exuberant character whose pleasant obnoxiousness becomes the flint of the group. Bailey's Lea goes from having a safe and empathetic role in Nene's sphere, to being dragged out of her shell and tempted into going along with the sudden and surprising plan. She is subtle and soft in her delivery, especially when she puts her selfless inclination to the side and opens up about her own hardships, which she'd pushed out of Nene's sight in order to protect her.
Bailey's direction reveals Dee as being the beating heart of the narrative. As portrayed by Blackstock she is torn between giving her child the freedom she deserves and the innate instinct of keeping her safe and sheltering her from the system that has previously hurt her. Unknown Rivers manages to be a delicate lecture on the depths of Black women. It doesn't want to be preachy, but it takes a stand for all those who've been pigeonholed into narrow categories that don't allow them to feel.
Odimba's writing prowess shines in its multi-faceted beauty, delivering complex figures who are given the right to take up space and open up as much as they need to without being shut down by society. She tells it how it is, dramatising the core issues that prevent Black women to find their place in the world as easily as others in what can be considered a modern-day myth.