All Is Well – mac, Birmingham

Writer: Vanessa Oakes
Director: Mark Evans
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

It’s Radunitsa, the Russian Orthodox day of remembrance for the dead. Family members of victims of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 are visiting family graves on an annual pilgrimage to the huge forest.

Aleks (Mark Carey) is visiting his mother’s grave. He is a nuclear consultant who works around the globe ensuring the safety of atomic energy. He soon meets Nina (Aimee Powell), a nursery teaching assistant. She works with children who have been impacted by the disaster, physically or mentally. Aleks’ assurance that it is now contained and safe – although there are always risks – sounds hollow to her. Stefan is Nina’s boyfriend. He has a new job as a tourism officer – yes, in 2011 the sealed zone was opened to allow tourists to learn more – although Stefan is clear that tourists are visiting only to enjoy the peace, tranquillity and silence of the woods. Stefan proposes marriage to Nina with infectious, boyish enthusiasm but she cannot countenance that while he continues in his rôle and runs away.

Over the day, all three get lost in the woods, each coping – or not – in their own way. They all meet the mysterious Anna (Janice McKenzie), an elderly lady who, it seems, has returned to live in the woods permanently, although her home and all her belongings from her previous life on a local farm are gone, buried. Her main companion is the blackbird who swoops about and warns her when strangers are near. Anna seems intent on breaking the rules about eating contaminated fruit or setting fires – they are forbidden as any smoke will carry radioactive particles across the land.

As our protagonists meet and talk, we learn about them, their experiences and their hopes. Can Stefan find Nina again? Can Aleks find peace? Just who is Anna and what is she doing?

Writer Vanessa Oakes has produced a contemplative piece, Brechtian in its structure as actors advise us of each scene, its location, the weather and even some of the stage directions, supported by the simple set designed by Nancy Surman. The naturalistic conversations have a rhythm to them that becomes compelling. Mark Evans’ direction is sympathetic to this and the steady pace, focus on interaction and feeling of anticipation as we increasingly hope each character can reach their personal nirvana is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot.

Each actor is sincere, understated and believable in their characterisations and their often quiet desperation. There is no room for flashiness or chest-beating in this sombre wood. This very understatement gives their words gravitas and impact, leading the audience to reflect in silence for a moment or two before the applause at the end.

All is Well doesn’t seek to criticise, blame or even answer questions; rather it takes a sympathetic look at how individuals might be affected: it is rather beautiful and emotive.

Runs until 13 May 2017 | Image: Contributed

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Contemplative and Emotive

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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