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Unknown Rivers (Play Review) Unknown Rivers (Play Review)
Unknown Rivers (Play Review)

In folklore, a mermaid is an aquatic creature with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide. In Africa, she’s known as the deity Mami Water. The name is often linked to a single entity but represents the strongest and most significant of all water spirits that exist.


This is the background to the spiritual and often mystical journey that Hampstead Theatre’s latest production ‘Unknown Rivers’ takes us on.


Since her ordeal of sexual abuse by an ‘Uncle’ five years ago that led to an unplanned pregnancy, nineteen-year-old Nene (Nneka Okoye) rarely leaves home. Secure within her mum’s embrace, Nene now keeps the outside world securely on the other side of her bedroom window. She has coped alone with depression and the mental anguish of the incident but is now ready to venture out.


She’s coaxed out by her long time and supportive friend Lea (Renee Bailey) who along with another close friend Lune (Aasiya Shah) persuades Nene to venture out to the local park.


Meanwhile, Nene’s mother Dee (Doreene Blackstock) is conflicted. On the one hand, she wants her daughter to leave here self-imposed prison yet on the other she’s unsure that her daughter’s mental state is still too fragile to be exposed to the reality of the outside world. All these we learn through her mystifying and cryptic monologues.


Her two friends each have their own deep-seated issues. Lea is self-harming, struggling to cope with the demands of an overbearing mother. Lune, because of her Asian heritage is forced to repress her sexuality.


After visiting the café and shops the three eventually end up at the local swimming pool. Nene enters the water and to the horror of her friends becomes submerged for a short while. At this time we flashback to the Mother who is reciting to the audience the origin of the mermaid folklore.


When Nene surfaces, she recounts to her friends her underwater encounter with a half fish-like figure as well as appearing to have overcome her psychological issues.


In a recent interview, Odimba said “I’m endlessly fascinated by the collision of the dream world and reality as it helps us to understand why dreaming is just as important as doing.”


Additionally, without being too preachy, she touches on the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype and the detrimental consequences of Black women always been seen as invincible.


The chemistry between the three girls is warm and engaging, best exemplified when the three girls frolic playfully on the café floor as they reminisce of times gone by. Each of them very different in their own way but together make an unusual whole. Nene is quiet and subdued, Lea is louder and more expressive but flawed in her own way whilst Lune is more daring and restless always seeming to seek new adventures.


Daniel Bailey’s direction is unobtrusive and subdued allowing the journey of friendship and the salvaging of their womanhood to blossom naturally whilst at the same time injecting the mystical aspects of the play to shine through the Mother’s heartfelt monologues.


Amelia Jane Hankins’s raise platform set which alternated between a river and a footpath helped in its own way to reinforce the sense of journey to a destination unknown and always out of reach.


Overall it was an enjoyable experience although the last few scenes seemed rather hurried and needed a little more time for the audience to understand how Nene’s transformation occurred.


Till 7 Dec, The Hampstead Theatre, NW3 3EU, Tickets https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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