UNKNOWN RIVERS plays at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until December 7th. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Engaging celebration of young black women’s resilience raises the spirits

Young Nene hasn’t been out of her house for five years, since a brutal sexual assault left her with two legacies – mental health issues and a child. Helped by her devoted friend Lea, Nene ventures outside. Intricately detailed preparations (to assuage Nene’s anxiety) are derailed with the unexpected arrival of Lea’s workmate Lune. Lune is outspoken, gay, a loose cannon; she disturbs Nene, but gradually they all bond.

All three face their own challenges- community disapproval of her sexuality has caused Lune to self-harm, and Lea too feels the weight of expectation that she must have a better life than that of her parents. “I can’t let her lose her dreams (for me)”. The trio’s afternoon outing extends to the local shopping centre where familiar music causes Nene to endure a terrifying flashback to her assault. However, later at a swimming pool another experience helps Nene to face the future through immersing herself in the past.

Chinonyerem Odimba’s compassionate play focuses on the three young women and the pressures they face from both inside and outside their communities. It is clear that they are a generation of young women that have to work together to create their own community, and it is this that Odimba’s play shows us with hope and admiration for their courage.

Doreene Blackstock radiates warmth in her loving portrayal of Nene’s Mother, musing on motherhood and telling fantastical traditional, handed-down stories with a fluidity and comforting manner. The trio of young women are all played effectively; Aasiya Shah as Lune highlights her defiantly out of step approach, learning to be proud of herself and who she is; Renee Bailey as friend Lea is careful, cautious and weighted, her measured approach thrown off-balance by the arrival of Lea and gradually learning to adjust. Nneke Okoye meticulously  expresses Nene’s edgy, ultra-cautious frame of mind well as she embarks on her own journey.

Odimba’s script is engaging and warm-hearted, whilst not flinching from the hardships the characters face. What lifts it is the subtle interplay of the mystical/storytelling elements which remind us that we can all find hope in the poetry of stories.

Daniel Bailey directs with a knowing respect. Amelia Jane Hankin’s spare but surprising set works well also.

I did feel that Nene’s nightmare flashback and subsequent “renewal” was rather too rapid a dramatic transformation for someone having suffered for five years, but this small point aside, UNKNOWN RIVERS is a warm and positive celebration of the spirit and resilience of young black women, and it is very welcome. See it if you can.

UNKNOWN RIVERS plays at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until December 7th. Details and tickets here

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