Tag Archives: Janice McKenzie

Catching Some Rays


mac, Birmingham, Friday 12th May, 2017


Vanessa Oakes’s play centres around four characters who lose their way in a forest.  Not just any forest but the contaminated one at Chernobyl, site of the biggest nuclear accident (so far, that is).  As is the custom, Aleks (Mark Carey) has returned to pay respects to his mother’s grave.  He’s not the only one on a similar quest.  People’s concern for tradition outweighs fear over the radiation that continues to poison the area, and will do so for thousands of years.  Young couple Stefan (Jack Richardson) and Nina (Aimee Powell) separate, reunite, fall out (no pun intended) and reconcile.  Meanwhile, old Anna (Janice McKenzie) gets on with her life in this forbidden forest, lamenting the loss of her home and defying the law of the land.  There is some mystery about who she is – the ambiguity is intriguing: is she Aleks’s mother?  Is she a ghost?

The presentation is simple, the location suggested by a rusty Russian sign, overgrown, a door frame standing alone.  The characters narrate scene headings and provide descriptions of what is not staged, so we build in our imaginations the scale of the forest, the weather conditions and so on.  Mark Evans directs with an assured hand, keeping things straightforward so that the ideas in the script are clearly transmitted.  The result is a stark reminder of the terrible accident, its impact on the locals and the area, and also a reminder of the folly of nuclear power.  Even after Chernobyl, people still want it – even though, the play points out, it is much more expensive than renewables.

The characters visit this toxic territory as though it’s a post-apocalyptic theme park.  We learn that tourists flock to the region, attracted by the horror, the ‘ghost town’.  How ghoulish!  And how typical of the attitude the play decries, that of not looking to the future, of hankering for the past through the prism of nostalgia instead of protecting ourselves and the land.

Janice McKenzie’s Anna is both wise and foolish, worldly and blinkered.  Aimee Powell’s Nina is passionate, tinged with fear, in her anti-nuclear stance, while Jack Richardson makes an emotional Stefan, albeit a bit of a twit.  Mark Carey’s Aleks is a scientist, resigned to radiation in the world, as if there is no alternative to nuclear energy.  The four meet each other in turn, throwing up in their conversations the questions Oakes wants us to think about.  Is it really worth gambling the environment?  Silly question but some people (corporations, governments) think it is.

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, but we engage with the issues and ideas more than with the characters.

Anna - All Is Well 2017

Anna (Janice McKenzie) Photo: Anand Chhabri

Girl Powers


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, February, 2015

This spellbinding production translates John Van Duren’s 1950s play to the 1970s, making it a period piece of sorts.  There is something otherworldly about Michael Holt’s set.  Its stylishness is offset beautifully by Danielle Beattie’s atmospheric lighting and James Earl-Davis’s eerie sound design of chimes and bells and what sounds like someone running their finger around the rim of a wine glass.

We are in Gillian’s London flat; Gillian is an independent, confident and wilful gal about town but it’s not just Women’s Lib that empowers her.  She is a witch, able to manipulate situations to her advantage.  When Anthony, the handsome bloke in the flat above, catches her eye and she learns he is engaged to an old school rival of hers, Gillian casts a spell on the hapless young man and he is unable to resist her.

As Gillian, Emma Pallant has a commanding stage presence – there is something hypnotic and seductive about her, something feline – like a panther in its lair.

In contrast we have her warlock brother Nicky, who sounds like Adam Faith in Budgie but dresses like Huggy Bear.  Adam Barlow literally lights up the stage in a measured and nuanced comic performance.  There is an undercurrent of menace offset by his flamboyant clobber and his disco strut.

Janice McKenzie is a delight as Queenie, in glorious Dracula’s Auntie costumes.  Director Gwenda Hughes doesn’t overplay the laughs, instilling a level of credibility in the fantastical aspects of the plot.

Geoffrey Breton does an appealing turn as the enchanted Anthony and there’s some lovely character work from Mark Chatterton as self-professed expert in magic, the muggle Sidney Redlitch.  And special mention must be made of ‘Casper’ who appears as Pyewacket, Gillian’s feline familiar.  Unlike the Blue Peter cats or McCavity, he doesn’t seek to flee the scene at the first opportunity.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an intelligent and funny play.  There are no short cuts to falling in love, that magical state that renders us all too human.


Let’s Go Round Again


The Door, Birmingham REP, Thursday 15th May 2014

The Number 11 is a bus that takes a circular route around outer Birmingham and is the setting for Rachel De-Lahey’s new piece – well, the people who use the bus or live on the route, which forms a metaphor for their lives and perhaps all our lives.

The play kicks off with an explosive monologue as loud-mouthed Malachi brags into his phone in a bid to impress a girl sitting a few seats away.  It’s a barrage of street talk and energy but Malachi’s swagger bubble is bursyt when during the ‘call’ his phone rings.  It’s his mum, assigning domestic chores.  It’s a hilarious reversal, played to the hilt by the likeable Toyin Kinch.  As the story progresses and his friendship with Demi (a striking Danusia Samal) develops, we see Malachi has a certain charm and sweet nature underneath the street talk and the posturing.

Scenes on the bus are interwoven with scenes in the home of elderly Phyllis (Janice McKenzie) who is a martyr to her dodgy hip and bad back.  Phyllis’s world view is limited, shaped by her experience and disability but it doesn’t stop her giving daughter Angela (Sarah Manners) a hard time when she returns to Phyllis for refuge from the violent partner who decorated her face with bruises.  The relationship between mother and daughter is far from easy, providing a neat contrast to the humorous scenes on board the 11.  Tensions simmer and boil over in some powerfully emotional moments between the two women.  Director Tessa Walker handles the changes of mood and pace effectively as De-Lahey’s script reveals what exactly is at stake.

It’s about patterns of behaviour, thinking in circles, living in a rut.  Repeating mistakes and passing those mistakes onto the next generation.  Will Demi be able to break the cycle?  Are all men bastards?

Circles is an engaging and entertaining 65 minutes with some blistering performances from this excellent cast.  While it has very much a local flavour (the Brummie accent lends itself easily to comedy), the subject matter could play anywhere: abusive relationships, domestic violence and victimhood (which is a word I have just coined!)

Catch it if you can.


Toyin Kinch (Malachi) and Danusia Samal (Demi). Photo: Graeme Braidwood