Listening to audiences

Final preview performance @ MAC

Our six preview shows have provided us with an important opportunity to engage with audiences in Coventry and Birmingham – to listen to their reactions and to debate (post show talks).

We’ve had lots of useful feedback (THANK YOU), from our audiences and also several reviews:

Reviews of performances at the Shop Front Theatre:

‘All is Well is highly successful in showing the ways in which the personal will always be representative of and closely connected with the political. (…) What seems to matter in the end is a commitment not just to a simplicity of existence, but to existence in general: to go on and somehow remain hopeful in times of catastrophe. It’s a message that seems chillingly relevant in our own present day’. Culturised Beth Longman May 7, 2017 (full review)

‘Director Mark Evans encapsulated the world of Chernobyl beautifully, having the characters describe the stage directions was an interesting approach which paid off, we were no longer looking at the constraints of a shop and instead the audience felt absorbed in the action. The simplicity of Nancy Surman’s set design of Chernobyl was beautiful, fitting the conditions of the auditorium well and yet never feeling that the stage was bare at any moment. All Is Well was an interesting and thought-provoking hour of theatre with bags of potential. The run continues at the mac in Birmingham this week. Catch it while you can’. Love Midlands Theatre Sam Simkin May 9, 2017 (full review)

Reviews of performances at the MAC:

‘It’s not all bleak.  There is humour here, reminding us the people of Chernobyl are humans like us and not just statistics.  And there is a charming blackbird puppet (designed and made by Joff Chafer) expressively operated by Jack Richardson.  Life goes on, the blackbird signifies, and while it does, all must be well.  Mustn’t it? A thought-provoking hour that amuses and horrifies’. Catching Some Rays – Bum on a Seat William Stafford May 12, 2017 (full review)


‘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 (…) As we become increasingly accustomed to the global growth of nuclear power, the title “All is Well” seems to satirise our complacency and willful ignorance of the dangers it entails. An eye-opening and deeply unsettling reminder of the perils of playing with power we cannot always control’. What’s On Midlands Heather Kincaid May 12, 2017 (full review)

‘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’.  The Reviews Hub Selwyn Knight May 12, 2017 (full review)

The Reviews Hub score ****

‘Vanessa Oakes has created an extremely thought-provoking piece of theatre about an event that is no longer as ‘current’ as perhaps it should be. The sensitivity and rawness of the script was carefully reflected in every element of the stage and brilliantly embodied by the tight-knit group of actors. All Is Well is a sensitive, at times funny and raw embodiment of the price of human progression and scientific intervention’. Weekend Notes Holly Reaney May 13, 2017 (full review)

ALL IS WELL COMPANY 2017 L-R: Dave (lighting design), Vanessa & Beauty, Jack, Mark E, Aimee, Mark C & Janice

Thanks for following our work in progress – if you’d like to hear what happens next to ‘All Is Well’, and where our star blackbird Beauty builds his nest next, just follow this blog and/or email to keep in touch.



The audience have their say…

Really Great! Thanks for finding a way to put these stories + this subject on stage xx


Fantastic intertwining words feelings themes. Well done all!

Powerful words imagery. Moving intimate. Deserves to be on tour.

Excellent. Raised questions that had never previously occurred to me. Intriguing and spellbinding.

Very thought provoking. I thought the use of the blackbird was excellent. Superb acting.

Overwhelming. Please don’t ever stop writing. I think we are all living there too??!!

So enjoyed this – great script & well acted. Love the bird.

Simply marvellous! What an enjoyable and enlightening afternoon. Thank you for your insight and sensitivity Vanessa.

Black Bird. Good acting.



The blackbird was a great addition.

Excellent. Thought provoking. Love the boots.

Excellent acting. Very thought provoking.

Enjoyed your production Vanessa. Makes you think all that time ago still repercussions.

Wonderful casting. Loved the mystery which is very thought-provoking. Magical, Ness!

Very thought provoking. Deserves a wider audience.

I also loved the blackbird (also I cried).

I’m afraid it made me want to visit.

Absolutely brilliant. Very proud.

AWESOME. So detailed. Moving and thought provoking. Beautifully written. So many layers. Loved it.

The people on the bar were lovely.

Haunting & thought provoking. Loved the blackbird.

Loved the weaving of time & space. The inescapability of the past and the poignance of the present. Really incredible.

Interesting + provocative take on a huge subject. Important to keep the debate alive. Well done.

Liked the sense of continuity + hope brought by the blackbird.

Enjoyed the play, loved the bird, loved the poetry. Well done.

Incredible humanity shining through.

Humans are so stupid – bless ’em. Scary and educational. Great storytelling.

Очень перемещаясь, совершенство спасибо для черных дроздов! Hope (Надежда) x – Very moving, thank goodness for blackbirds!  x


Lovely to see such an important piece of history brought into the present in such a poetic way. Very poignant and relevant.


Very engaging, thanks x

I liked how humanising it is rather than presenting the characters as stereotypes with Russian accents. Also: – Stefan was a dick – the old lady was my favourite character (but should have been a cannibal) – the blackbird prop was great.

Beautiful storytelling. Thank you.

Loved how dynamic the characters were. All so much deeper than first appeared. Was Stefan meant to be sympathetic? Because he wasn’t. Loved everything else.

Food for thought. Loved it. Still thinking – smashing performances.

We are at MAC, Birmingham for two performances only this weekend.

Hope to see you there! 

Tickets £10 (£8):

SHOWTIME at the Shop Front Theatre

Janice McKenzie as Anna

It’s been a full on week for the team: weekend rehearsals, wardrobe malfunctions, repairs to Beauty, leafleting in Earlsdon (Earlsdon Festival), collecting more bones from Warwick, get-in, tech rehearsal, dress rehearsal, line runs, picking up the bike from King’s Heath (thank you Helen), hours (!) of admin, collecting lighting from the Belgrade (last seen in the old studio theatre), fitting rostra in the Shop Front Theatre, spraying anything that doesn’t move with Flambar, dashing home to walk the dog, cooking Pirogi and hoovering (Vanessa comes from a long line of professional cleaners)…

Janice and Aimee

We were joined by the excellent Anand Chhabra (Black Country Visual Arts) on Wednesday night, who shot these beautiful images.

Jack Richardson (Stefan) & Mary Carey (Aleks)

And opened on Thursday to a full house and post show talk which provided one of our most memorable moments – Nancy’s face when we called her onstage to discuss how she tackled the scale of the play.

Aimee Powell as Nina

Thank you to everybody who came along – your support means a lot to us.

There are still tickets available for tonight (5th May) 7.30 pm

 & Saturday 6th May 2. 30 pm & 7.30 pm

We are also at MAC next week (12th & 13th May) for two performances only:

Running time approx 1 hour

Guest blog post: Beauty in flight

Joff’s first puppet credit, attacking Margaret Thatcher with a chicken


I started thinking about how to create Beauty (as he/she is now known) in September when Mark first contacted me about the project and the research started with looking at images of birds and puppets, the main focus on finding a way to make the wings work simply and effectively.

In my research on Pinterest I came across this wonderful project at blisskalbautomata (do check out the video to see the wing in action) and I started at looking at ways to simplify it , given time and financial considerations not to mention the considerable technical and engineering expertise required.

Looking at wing structure I started playing around with simple cantilever mechanisms but after several versions with Meccanno decided that a fixed wing that could sit alongside the body, rotate forward into position and then flap would give the right effect whilst limiting the possibilities of things getting caught or going wrong.

In order to provide room for the cables that would be needed to operate the wings I started by making an open skeleton structure for the blackbird using wire and pin-hinges.

And then added a wing to the pin-hinge that could rotate, initially this was solid wood then reduced to a wooden mechanism that could rotate with a wire skeleton for the rest of the wing to reduce weight.

Knowing that I was going to use trigger mechanisms to operate the wings I added a wooden handle and backbone to the structure.

This also gave me a firm position to attach the head.

As the head needed to have a beak that could open and close I based it around a simple peg mechanism with dense foam carved and attached covered in my new favourite moulding material Worbla (this comes as a plastic sheet that when heated with a hot air gun goes soft, it can then be moulded and sets hard).

The head was attached with a wire that  allows it to pivot up and down and the other end of the wire fits snuggly into a hole in the wood and can rotate side to side.

The body was initially covered in blocking net (this is traditionally used for making hats, it is a mesh that when hot water or steam is used on it, goes soft, can be moulded then holds its’ shape).

Blocking net applied to the wing.

It was further dressed with fur fabric, feathers, black plastic, paint and buttoned for the eyes.

Legs were added made from wire covered with Worbla, and attached with a cable so that they lie backwards when in flight. Elastic was used to return the wings back to their original position and to support the head in its’ resting position.

Beauty in flight, the index finger trigger mechanism rotates the wings forward into position and lifts the legs, the thumb operates the flapping mechanism.

Joff Chafer

‘On Thursday I try to get myself lost in the city centre’.

Beauty 1

Joff, Beauty, Janice, Aimee & Jack

Aimee: I have thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of the rehearsal process. I thought the structure of the week was interesting. Doing the scenes out of chronological order was a new way of approaching text for me. It forced you to come into the scenes without knowledge of the character’s previous emotional journey. I didn’t find this very helpful for me and the way that I learn. It made me unsure of who Nina was and where she was at during first rehearsals of the scenes. However, once we had been through the whole play I was able to make more informed decisions on character and story the second time we visited the scenes. Overall it has been a very relaxed, comfortable and fun first week. 

Beauty 3

Jack with Beauty

Jack: Relaxing! Insightful chat regarding Chernobyl and the incident. Lovely company – happy to discuss the text. Beauty the blackbird is wonderful – new to puppetry but eager to have a play with him! Looking ahead at the schedule keeps me from feeling overwhelmed – we’ve got time and it’s coming along nicely!

Beauty 5

Mark E (director) becomes a tree for Beauty and Mark C

Mark C: So, I’m always pleasantly surprised how lovely theatre people are. Day one, know some people, not others but everyone is open, honest and friendly. AND – we are all, without words, committed to doing our best work. I’m trying hard to get the old brain around the words and the ideas. Mustn’t let all that stop me listening to what people are saying. First weeks always take me back to my training. Thirty – odd years ago I learned things that still help me now. Relax. Feel your feet on the stage. Open your mind. Breathe. On Thursday I try to get myself lost in the city centre. I do this on purpose to be like Aleks. Sadly, by chance, I find my way straight back to the Ellen Terry building!

Guest blog post: little moments starting to spark


After so many weeks of planning and discussing, it was a delight to finally get in to the rehearsal room for the first read-through with our fabulous cast. Nancy (our designer) brought the model box along so that we could start the day with a sense of how everything was going to look.


It is always a special moment to hear the words read out and feel the characters start to come alive off the page. Having Vanessa in the room meant that we could have a tea break (she brought some custard creams); it also meant that we could explore the script and the unique world she has created in much more detail, e.g. how the characters cross each other’s paths, sometimes without realising.

In the afternoon we started work on the two central relationships; between Nina (Aimee Powell) and Stefan (Jack Richardson), and between Anna (Janice McKenzie) and Aleks (Mark Carey). This was a time for work on the finer detail of the relationships – the looks, movements, tone of voice that bring out the life of the text – not easy with scripts still in hand, but great to see those little moments starting to spark.

Now we break for Easter (line learning and lots of chocolate). Next week the last (but not least) cast member arrives – Beauty, the Blackbird….

Mark Evans (director).

Guest blog post: Nancy gets excited about a Ukrainian tractor driver certificate

It was the day my desk exploded… I am trying to finish the designs for two shows for LAMDA before rehearsals start for All Is Well next week. So my head is a weird heady cocktail of nuclear power station disasters and pirogi pie recipes, the psychology of people who feel the answer to their problems is to take a pot shot at an American President and then sing about it (Stephen Sondheim’s The Assassins) and some very strange behaviour in an Edwardian East Anglian coastal village which may or may not involve spacemen (Edward Bond’s The Sea)… but it seems my work space exploded before my head!

Nancy blog 1

With so much going on it is nice to take a moment to relax and enjoy a little gift from somewhere else in the world (well, I did have to pay for them but it always feels like a present when a parcel arrives in the post). And reflect how small internet retail has made the world, with the click of a button props arrive from the other side of the planet.Perhaps there is a formula for world peace in there somewhere….if only I had time. This weeks treasures, vintage children’s books including genuine soviet era school text books from a lovely lady in the Ukraine who has also sent (and perhaps only I can get excited about this), a Ukrainian tractor driver certificate! I also received this week a Russian toy from the USA (go figure) and he turned up with a free friend (with a slightly disturbing pencil nose?).

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I love it when a plan comes together, excuse the pun. The ground plans are done.

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