CHRIS Hannon’s diary for 2020 had all the makings of being a dream year for the Lunch Monkeys and Topsy And Tim actor.
It promised a TV series, a summer of open-air theatre and a winter of writing the Theatre Royal, Wakefield pantomime and playing the dame there, as he has done for the past decade.
Then the world stopped, sent into lockdown by the Coronavirus pandemic. The TV job never happened, Chris’s pencil had to cross out the summer of theatre work, and the fate of the Wakefield panto, like so many across the country, hangs in the balance.
From today, however, Chris can be found sitting on a bench every evening in the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park in York and, glory be, he will be working – performing Samuel Beckett’s monologue First Love to a socially distanced audience as part of the Park Bench Theatre triple bill that runs until September 5.
Written in 1946 and published in French in 1970 and in English in 1973, the rarely performed First Love is a 45-minute short story of a man, a woman, a recollection, told with Irish playwright Beckett’s trademark balancing act of comedy and tragedy
The first time Chris encountered Beckett’s work was through a production of his more famous 1958 monologue Krapp’s Last Tape and he has also taken part too in a rehearsed reading of Beckett’s magnus opus, Waiting For Godot.
First Love, he suggests, feels like a young man’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape, whose elderly character is described as “slightly clownish with red nose and white cheeks”. “That’s a big part of the way Beckett writes characters: people looking back on their lives and realising that the life they lived had a comical absurdity, where they end up as sad clowns. It’s quite accessible for audiences,” says Chris.
He finds the prospect of holding the attention of an audience on his own both “exciting and absolutely terrifying”. “It’s just you on your own for an hour, which is quite daunting. On a technical level, there’s a lot of words to learn. I’ve never done a one-man show and am excited to do it.
“I found the text intimidating at first but as I started to pick it apart, I quickly realised that it’s a universal, relatable story. The story of a young man coming of age.”
Chris is delighted to be acting again after an enforced six-month absence and believes audiences share that feeling. “People are ready to see something live and have a shared experience,” he says.
First Love will be one of the three solo shows presented by Engine House Theatre, whose artistic director Matt Aston responded to his daily exercise around Rowntree Park by putting together the outdoor season, once the easing of Covid-19 restrictions enabled live performances in the open air.
Chris had first worked with First Love director Matt in his debut year in the Wakefield pantomime. Matt was directing, a task undertaken in recent years by Chris’s wife, Rhiannon, the head of learning and participation at the West Yorkshire theatre.
Chris had always wanted to play panto dame but imagined he was too young. “I thought you had to be a theatrical veteran to do it. I just loved it when I did it,” he says.
Now 39, the Runcorn actor does not recall seeing many pantomimes when growing up. “I have a memory of going to one panto as a child: Peter Pan. All I can remember is the spectacle. Then, as an actor in my 20s, I saw some of the panto greats. I thought ‘that looks so much fun’ – and it is.”
He had written the first draft for this winter’s Beauty And The Beast when the pandemic took up its unremitting residence. “I write the script for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds as well as for Wakefield. I start writing the scripts in February. It’s first draft, second draft, the rehearsal process and sorting out the music. It’s the rhythm of my year,” says Chris.
“I love panto and playing the dame. It’s become a really big part of my life. Ours is a proper traditional family pantomime. We put so much care into it.”
If making his one-man show debut is a challenge, so too is working with children, as he did when playing Dad in the BAFTA-winning CBeebies series Topsy And Tim for 34 episodes from 2013 to 2015.
“They wanted to get very spontaneous performances from the kids, so you would never do take after take after take. The adults would work on set with crew, then the kids would come on set – and what happened, happened,” recalls Chris, who has a three-year-old son, Ben, by the way.
“If they dropped a line, the adults had to pick it up. You had to know their lines and your lines. Scenes were never played as written on the page. You just had to keep it going. A huge amount of improvisation was involved.”
That series still brings him recognition, with parents demanding he poses for a picture with their children. “The kids are mortified by this. They don’t want a picture taken with me, so there are lots of pictures of me with unhappy-looking kids,” says Chris.
No children will be present at First Love, however. Beckett’s monologue comes with a Very Strong Language warning!
Chris Hannon performs Samuel Beckett’s First Love, August 12 to 22, at 7pm, and August 15, 4pm, as part of Engine House Theatre’s Covid-secure Park Bench Theatre season in the Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York. Tickets must be bought in advance at parkbenchtheatre.com.