The Midlands Essential Entertainment Guide
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30 years after the infamous nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the space surrounding the old power plant remains fraught with tensions old and new. While ageing inhabitants refuse to leave their dangerously radioactive homes, and the families of those lost return each year to pay respects, the rich biodiversity springing up in the absence of human interference has also become a magnet for nature tourists, as well as a refuge for desperate asylum seekers justly afraid of being chewed up and spat out by the casual cruelty of immigration bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, as demand for an alternative to fossil fuels increases, nuclear power has become a rapidly expanding industry worldwide, and despite a second disaster at Fukushima in 2011, there are even talks of building a new Chernobyl plant on the site of the old one. Just cause, then, for Vanessa Oakes’ new play “All is Well” to question whether three decades of death, illness, misery and life-long defects and disabilities have taught us anything at all.
The story begins with four characters making their way through the Chernobyl forest, each with their own reasons for being there, each accidentally or deliberately encountering the others at some point in the play.
Weighed down by loneliness and regret, scientist and nuclear safety advisor Aleks goes to tidy the grave of his stubborn mother, one of the hangers-on who would not be kept from her home. Actor Mark Carey expertly plumbs the emotional depths of the character without ever breaking his outwardly stoic and pragmatic facade. Despite his being bound up with the industry that caused the disaster, its he who wins our sympathy most out of all the characters. “My mother used to say, ‘Everyone who ever loved me is gone.’ Now I think I know what she meant,” he says ruefully, though it seems much too late for him to change things now.
Meanwhile, jovial tourism officer Stefan (Jack Richardson) pursues his disapproving girlfriend Nina (Aimee Powell), after she rejects his marriage proposal on the grounds that she can’t abide his cashing in on the suffering of the community, or encouraging people to visit somewhere so dangerous. As a nursery nurse caring for some of the worst-affected children, the angry young Nina is all too painfully aware of the human cost of such carelessness.
Then there’s Anna, a crochety old woman living deep in the forest who does not take kindly to visiting strangers. There’s something odd about her though – something wise, out of time, and almost unreal. Years inhabiting this isolated place alone and observing passers-through seem to have turned her into a part of the forest itself. As she appears out of nowhere, chatting merrily with a blackbird which behaves tamely only with her, the other characters are inexplicably compelled to tell their stories and vent their feelings to her, though she insists she has no interest in hearing them. Likewise, as an audience, we’re drawn to Janice McKenzie’s mesmerising stage presence, her pride and gravitas making the character seem to belong in some much older, 19th-century classic play.
Finally, of course, there’s the blackbird, a puppet called Beauty designed by Joff Chafer. Oversized, ragged-feathered and weirdly mechanical-looking, the bird was conceived as having been mutated by radiation, its pretty song trailing off into the clicking of a Geiger counter.
There’s a Brechtian quality to the writing – sometimes flowery and poetic, yet more often sparse, characterised by pregnant pauses and by what is left unsaid, with all the action tightly contained within a single hour. Each scene begins with characters reciting stage directions – both helping to conjure up the forest from the limited but evocative set, and allowing for moments of humour, as when Beauty neglects to do as he’s directed. The result of this distancing is that we’re rarely emotionally engaged, though we might feel some of the pity and the shame of the horrors described.
The show ends with an imagined refugee girl looking out towards the audience as if for answers, since the play itself appears to offer none. As Aleks says, this will go on as long as there’s demand for power to charge up phones and go online and for every other convenience the modern world expects.
As we become increasingly accustomed to the global growth of nuclear power, the title “All is Well” seems to satirise our complacency and wilful ignorance of the dangers it entails. An eye-opening and deeply unsettling reminder of the perils of playing with power we cannot always control.
Reviewed by Heather Kincaid at mac Birmingham 12/05/2017
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