Friday 28 April 2023

Unseen Unheard: The untold breast cancer stories of Black women in the UK - Review

Theatre Peckham, London


Written by Naomi Denny
Directed by Simon Frederick & Suzann McLean

Six women attend a support group meeting for black women with breast cancer. It doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a lively play. It could easily have become a static, earnestly worthy documentary. In the accomplished hands of playwright Naomi Denny however, it’s anything but, with Denny delivering a pacey, dynamic, entertaining drama. Yes, of course, there’s anger, sadness and fear but there’s also a lot of wisdom and humour in this warm celebration of female friendship.

Denny has based her play on the testimony of five women, credited and named in the programme. From that she has moulded six characters, all very different but each a meaty role. And casting director Ali Anselmo has assembled an outstanding cast to bring these people convincingly and realistically to life. 

Denise Pitter is very plausible as Pauline who chairs the meeting. She’s empathetic, respectful and carefully inclusive. Laya Lewis plays her passionate and funny friend Ruth. Both women are currently NED (no evidence of disease). Carol Moses’s Dorah, on the other hand, has Stage 4 cancer and is by turns forthright, bitter, outrageous, hilarious, kind and terrified. The nuancing is impressive.

As Sonia, Yvonne Gidden is tense, taciturn and apprehensive but gradually unbends and Genesis Lynea delights as her elegant, articulate doctor daughter although lack of age gap between them doesn’t work. Meanwhile Aliyah (Adaora Anwa) is the youngest attendee. Only 25 and still living at home she is struggling to come to terms with having been assailed by this disease so early in life.

The group dynamics are perceptively observed as they compare notes, concur, infuriate each other, argue, drink tea and share the food they’ve brought. Occasional freeze flashbacks (good lighting by Pablo Fernandez) provide insights into the experience of diagnosis or dealing with the horror of learning you have cancer as a single parent of two children.  It’s cracking drama as well as being informative. How many people know that a black woman with breast cancer is forty per cent more likely to die than a white one? This is a play with a powerful message.

Runs until 4th May
Reviewed by Susan Elkin

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