Review: Unseen Unheard, Theatre Peckham

There’s extraordinary power in Unseen Unheard: The untold breast cancer stories of Black women in the UK at Theatre Peckham that needs to be heard more widely

“Cancer may not care about race but the system does”

There are moments here when the data stands out from the drama, but when the statistics are as appalling as these here, you understand why. Death rates for Black women with breast cancer being a third as high as that for white women, their comparative diagnoses coming at later, more dangerous stages than white women, nearly 75% of those using prosthetics not being offered the right colour. Offensive and outrageous, and yet we’ve let society get away with it for too long.

Commissioned and funded by Gilead Sciences Ltd and presented by Theatre Peckham for this limited run in association with Black Women Rising, playwright Naomi Denny is ensuring that we can’t protest ignorance for much longer. Unseen Unheard: The untold breast cancer stories of Black Women in the UK has been developed from real-life experiences to give wider voice to these systemic issues, to contextualise just what disparities in diagnosis and care actually mean IRL.

We meet our six characters at a support group for Black women with breast cancer. Set up by two of them who are now NED (no evidence of disease, as opposed to in remission), there’s a tacit acknowledgement that the creation of a safe space is a real thing, an environment in which it is more comfortable to share emotions and experience within a community. And human beings being who they are, even within a community there is great diversity in the stories to be told.

From Dorah’s Stage 4 diagnosis and the intensity of what she’s feeling to Aliyah’s delayed reactions to her own recent news, from Pauline’s open-hearted welcome to Sonya’s buttoned-up reluctance to share, intersecting lines of friends, family and faith play their own part in shaping experiences. Wanting to protect loved ones, feeling unable to protect them too, frustration at a health service that can’t or won’t listen, anger at professionals unaware of how their racial bias is showing (the anecdote about toleration of pain was another revelation).

Co-directors Simon Frederick and Suzann McLean do a remarkable job at keeping things even-handed, enfolding us into the trust circle but never letting us get overwhelmed by the gravity of the material. There’s much humour here as well as heartbreak, Carol Moses’ Dorah a key exponent of both. Denise Pitter brings deligthful warmth to Pauline and the interplay between Yvonne Gidden’s Sonya and Genesis Lynea as her daughter Lily is beautifully sketched as the richness of their storyline unfolds. One really hopes this isn’t the last we hear of this powerful play.

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Unseen Unheard is booking at Theatre Peckham until 4th May

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *