For better or worse so much of our life, personality and choices are shaped by relationships with family. A stable, loving upbringing can equip an individual with the same traits, and the opposite often ushers in a lifetime of hardship. House + Amongst the Reeds are two short plays presented as a double bill by Clean Break showing the consequences of family disruption on the lives of young people. Different in content and tone, both have their faults in their execution but lay bare a selection of issues in Western social and familial fabrics.
Oni and Gillian are two undocumented, homeless teenagers in Chino Odimba’s Amongst the Reeds. The two girls are the same age, and both ran away from abusive family members who their parents trusted to raise and educate in the UK. Nigerian Oni and Vietnamese Gillian are chalk and cheese, but when Oni promises of a house of their own where they can raise Gillian’s soon-to-be-born baby, education and good jobs once she receives her leave to remain, Gillian can’t resist. Tragically, youthful optimism and ignorance leads them to a very different place.
An ambiguous ending leads to questions of what is and isn’t real, but the story is a powerful reminder that there are young people in similar situations hiding in plain sight up and down the country. They don’t need to be deported, they need to be placed with a caring family who can help them achieve the education and quality of life they deserve.
The characterisation of both girls tends to generalise, but actors Rebecca Omogbehin and Jan Le endow them with heart. There are too many stereotypes present that blockpotential pathos, but the story is a strong one that needs to be refined and heard.
House is structurally more developed with well-rounded characters, though there is a pronounced lack of background information that is alluded to in this mini kitchen sink drama. Mama is seeing her estranged, eldest daughter for the first time in years, and her younger daughter, the good devoted one, has a secret she needs to share.
Writer Somalia Seaton tries to fit an overly tangled web into too short of a time for her characters to properly confront their issues, but the cast of three deliver some lovely performances. Shvorne Marks and Rebecca Omogbehin as sisters Patricia and Jemima have a fantastic chemistry, combining to amusingly wind up their traditional, Nigerian mum. There’s enough humour to lighten the complexity of the character’s volatile relationships, though the story is incomplete and patchy.
Though House is the more sophisticated piece, the execution of Amongst the Reeds is marginally better. The latter is simpler and with issues that leave more lasting impact, though the former has more scope for development into a stunning piece of contemporary naturalism.
Even though there are problems with both short plays, this double bill gives voice to sorely underrepresented demographics. Clean Break’s work is an absolutely vital contribution to the UK theatre landscape, and more companies need to follow suit.
House + Amongst the Reeds runs through 17 September.
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