‘Unknown Rivers’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Unknown Rivers, Hampstead Downstairs, 2019
Photograph: Robert Day Aasiya Shah (Lune), Renee Bailey (Lea) and Nneka Okoye (Nene)

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Poetic drama about three female friends seeking healing in the water

Chinoyerem Odimba’s new play is a strange mix of smart understatement, poetic mysticism, and clunking scene-setting that absolutely has something to it, but feels a draft or two from being the finished deal.

Both in their late teens, Nene (Nneka Okoye) and Lea (Renee Bailey) are best friends. But where Lea is effusive and outgoing, Nene is deeply unwell. They have arranged a lunch date together, a rare trip out of the house for Nene, who struggles to be in a crowd of people. Things are almost derailed when Lea’s workmate Lune (Aasiya Shah) crashes the lunch, mightily freaking Nene out. Eventually, though, she adjusts to the new arrival, and they even start to have fun in each other’s company, swigging from Lune’s hip flask and resolving to head to a shut-down swimming pool where they used to spend time.

Daniel Bailey’s production builds to a beautifully poetic climax, as Nene eventually finds (or rediscovers) her voice in an ebullient tide of language that touches upon political blackness, mental health, poetic mysticism, and the transformative power of words and water. And I liked the understatement with which Odimba pursues the story: the only real attempt at exposition comes from sequences in which Nene's worried mother Dee (Doreene Blackstock) sheds some light on past events. It turns out that a trauma in Nene’s past is responsible for her behaviour – but Odimba refrains from bogging it down in nasty details; our imagination is quite enough. 

So it’s frustrating that a play that’s so elegant and understated in some ways is so clanging in others. The very idea that Lune would just turn up at Lea and Nene’s lunch is really pushing it as a plot driver. And I struggled with how Nene was written: at first her behaviour suggests a severe neurological condition; later it becomes clear that she must be suffering from some form of PTSD; in the end she goes on to shrug whatever it is off with relative ease. I’m sure Odimba has done her research, but here her understatement is in danger of feeling imprecise and even a touch glib about life-debilitating conditions. The idea that Nene would be ‘cured’ by a good night out is essentially preposterous, although Odimba’s verse is ultimately powerful enough to make it work, just about.

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