How do you feel right now? Just a five? Can we get you up to a six? How about a seven? Have you got that seven feeling yet?
Nene (Nneka Okoye) spends every day practically underwater. She’s eighteen and gaspingly agoraphobic, afraid, and anxious, but today her twinnie from childhood, Lea (Renee Bailey) has managed to lure her out of her house, away from safety. Lea checks in with Nene again and again, gently checking the level of okay she’s feeling, reassuring her that she hasn’t forgotten something important – and besides, they’re nearly there. They are going to have lunch out together.
It doesn’t go as simply as that, of course, as Luna (Aasiya Shah), a friend of Lea’s from the everyday degrading grind of her job at a very white publishing house, decides to crash this carefully planned-out occasion. Nene and Lea – and indeed Luna’s – adjusting to each other’s presence on what becomes a whole day’s mini sojourn together is intercut with scenes of Nene’s mother, Dee (Doreene Blackstock) waiting for her daughter at home.
Chinonyerem Odimba’s writing often dips toes into lyricism, which, while striking, can make the characters sound somewhat the same. It sits most comfortably in the mouth of Blackstock, whose scenes as Dee feel more elastic and naturally open to poetic language. Blackstock’s Dee is so frank, inviting us towards her and what she’s learnt about motherhood, almost beside herself with joy when remembering drawing with Nene. Odimba’s writing is sympathetic to a fault: she shows us lightly how part of how Nene has come to be herself is inherited, like the tendency towards nosebleeds she shares with her mother, while part is down to Dee’s own protective instinct.
And another part is due to trauma, not easily explained or demonstrated, and Odimba’s lightness of touch is well deployed in only hinting at the origin of Nene’s trauma. Luna and Lea have struggles of their own, though in such a slight play there isn’t the time to spare properly for the racist death by a thousand cuts Lea endures at work each day, hanging in there only in order to avoid disappointing her own mother’s expectations. Luna’s family – especially her mother’s – shame and disappointment at her identity as a lesbian is similarly dealt with. Both women’s problems are sharply depicted, but it’s as if the characters need to feel better about these situations sharpish too. The ending of the play also feels neater and more sudden than Odimba’s subtle characterisations up to this point should perhaps allow.
Okoye’s Nene is wide-eyed and tentative, consciously childlike herself at times, even as she worries about what she’s missing of her own young daughter’s life. How can she be a proper mother when she’s so debilitated, she asks herself. We hear something of this child only when with Dee, as a baby’s cry echoes over acoustic guitar in Duramaney Kamara’s burbling sound design. Amelia Jane Hankin’s set and Martha Godfrey’s lighting set the characters on a raised, long stage, with a winding crack around its entranceway, which lights blue like a river or red like the route of a map, or the blood which runs down Dee and Nene’s faces.
Daniel Bailey’s production is likeable and comfortable, even if I find myself wishing we had more time to unfurl the imagery of mermaids (and with them power, and solidarity, and grace, especially as Black and Brown women) earlier in the play. I want to see and know more of Nene and Dee’s story specifically, and Luna and Lea’s arcs, while certainly akin to Nene’s, feel disparate from this end. The pattern of scene-shifting from the three to Dee and back again becomes so prompt as to feel a bit rote; it feels as if the play would benefit from being allowed to be a little weirder.
One of the best moments is when Nene actually joins Dee for a bout of reminiscing – she’s there, sort of, and they roll about the stage together, like when she was a kid. It’s unusual for me to immediately read the playtexts sometimes given to me when reviewing, but I did in this case. This rolling is expanded on in Odimba’s script at another point: Nene, Lea and Luna roll around together laughing on the café’s floor, like rivers themselves, and in the script, mermaids are first mentioned here. It’s one of a few changes I think this production suffers from making, ironing out some shimmering mess.
Despite a compassionate sensitivity to the quiet ways Black women, mothers, and those floundering against their own mental ill health suffer, Unknown Rivers feels a little like a hurried lap, when it’d much rather be a leisurely swim by moonlight, and through wild waters.
Unknown Rivers is on at Hampstead Theatre till 7th December. More info here.