NO Chelsea Flower Show this summer. No Harrogate Autumn Flower Show in its Newby Hall debut year. York, however, has three shows in one garden.
Theatre shows, that is. Monologues, to be precise, staged by Engine House Theatre under the title of Park Bench Theatre in the Covid-secure, socially distanced setting of the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park.
The first, First Love, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s short story of a man, a woman, a recollection, is in its last bloom with Wakefield Theatre Royal pantomime dame Chris Hannon earning Best in Show awards galore for his tragicomic turn.
The second, artistic director Matt Aston and actor Cassie Vallance’s playful adaptation of the familiar song Teddy Bears’ Picnic, is bedding in nicely in morning and afternoon performances that began on Wednesday.
The first shoots of the third, Tom Bellerby’s premiere of Aston’s lockdown play Every Time A Bell Rings, will poke through on August 26, with its topical tale of tentative first steps being taken from long-term isolation.
Chris Hannon had last performed in the first week of January, in Jack And The Beanstalk, in the dame role he has made his own over a decade at Wakefield Theatre Royal. Little could he have imagined what lay ahead…or, rather, did not once Covid-19 spread its pandemic wings.
“I had lots of nice things lined up, starting with a TV series, The 4 O’Clock Club for CBBC, but at least that should still happen next year,” says Chris.
“This summer I should have been doing Alice In Wonderland, a promenade show around Williamson Park in Lancaster, put on by The Dukes theatre. That would have been the first time I’d done that, with a holiday in Mallorca in between, but that all fell by the wayside.”
In Lockdown, Chris had watched the series of National Theatre streams of NT Live productions, only exacerbating how his absence from theatre made the heart grow fonder for a return to performing.
“The NT plays were great, but all it reminded you of was how much you missed being in a theatre with an audience, sharing a room with actors, that feeling of being together. It really made you want to be there,” he says.
“That’s what’s been hard. Not being close to people. Missing that connection. That’s why it’s been so exciting to be able to do Park Bench Theatre, to be performing to an audience again.
“Mind you, the Beckett piece is a singular challenge: performing an hour’s worth of material on your own.”
Rehearsals with Matt Aston had begun on Zoom, followed by a week in a space on the University of York campus, before tech preparations at Rowntree Park. “As it’s a one-man show, we did four hours a day on Zoom, and that was about as much as I could take each day in screen!”
For each production, audience members must tune in on a headset, cutting out extraneous noise from elsewhere in the park. “It works well for First Love as the monologue is about a man working through a hazy memory, and if you were to perform it to 600 people, it would be more technically demanding, but it suits the intimacy of headsets, when you’re playing to a maximum audience of 70.”
Cassie Vallance finished her run in Aston’s production of The Storm Whale in the York Theatre Royal Studio on January 4 but has kept busy in lockdown by moving Story Craft Theatre’s participatory Crafty Tales sessions for children online, working in tandem with fellow actor Janet Bruce.
“It was a very quick learning curve: one of my two-year-old daughter’s first words was ‘Zoom’!” she says.
“I also auditioned for Juliet Forster’s July production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad at York Theatre Royal but that had to be postponed in March. I really hope they will do it next year.” [Editor’s note: The York Theatre Royal website states “the production will now be staged in 2021.]
“I’ve also been doing some R&D [research and development] work for a friend and had time away too, so we’ve just changed things around a bit for me to do Teddy Bears’ Picnic, which is great,” Cassie adds.
“In June I was thinking ‘that’s it for 2020′ but then this show happened and I just know how lucky I’ve been compared with many of my friends in theatre, where the situation is changing all the time but theatres are still dark.
“It’s so nice that City of York Council and Make It York have been so enthusiastic about Park Bench Theatre, and we’re so lucky that York is really up for it. ”
From an original idea by The Storm Whale musical director Julian Butler, Cassie and Matt Aston have co-created the aptly outdoor performance of Teddy Bears’ Picnic for children aged three upwards.
Again, Zoom has come in handy. “I’d write a bit, Matt would write a bit, and we’d share thoughts on Zoom,” says Cassie. “We then started working on the physical aspect of the show from August 1, as I’m much more of an up-and-about physical person, and then we began running it.
“The main thing, when working on it, has been to be flexible, with it being for children and an outdoor show. Visually, it has to have lots of big stuff, and our thinking was, ‘if we can say it physically, let’s do that’, but it’s also a play full of memory moments, which we’ve made more intimate.”
Director Tom Bellerby, once associate artist at York company Pilot Theatre and associate director at Hull Truck Theatre, headed for London in 2018 to take up the post of resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse. He left that role last year but had stayed in the capital, only for theatre suddenly to be cast into the wilderness.
…“The day that Boris Johnson made his big speech, effectively closing theatres, no warning, I was on day one of rehearsals for a play at the Bush Theatre,” Tom recalls. “I’d just done my first eight hours and then got the message that that was that.
“I came back to my family in York and I’ve only been back to London for one day since then to pack up my flat down there. Being back here has reminded how much I love it here, working for four years in York, two at Hull Truck, before I had two amazing years at the Donmar.”
As chance would have it, the flat in York where Tom had lived when he was 23, was available again. “So, I sent the landlady a note and told her my situation and my partner Lydia’s situation – she writes for continuing BBC dramas – and after ten weeks of living at my parents, we moved back into the old flat,” he says.
As well as his curtailed Bush Theatre production, Tom should have been directing Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts Of Mercy at Derby Theatre in late-May but lockdown put a line through that one too.
Not that lockdown was an entirely negative experience. “There were times when I loved the change of pace, getting into the routine of a daily walk,” he says.
At Aston’s invitation, Tom is directing the Park Bench Theatre artistic director’s new monologue, Every Time A Bell Rings, wherein Slung Low and Northern Broadsides regular Lisa Howard plays Cathy, who has been living in isolation.
On Easter Sunday 2020, in the uncertain world of lockdown, she searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in Aston’s poignant but humorous look at how the world is changing through the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“I love working on new writing, being the first person to tell this story” says Tom. “Matt has responded to this moment in history with a powerful piece and because I’m a geeky type, I’ve enjoyed looking at the nuances of the writing.”
Whereas he is linking up with Aston for the first time, he is renewing acquaintances with Lisa Howard. “I worked with Lisa on Blood + Chocolate in York in 2013 and I’m really excited to be working with her again for the first time since then,” he says. “Again, the audience will be using headsets for the show, like they did for Blood + Chocolate, which will help to make it more intimate.”
Engine House Theatre presents Park Bench Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5
Chris Hannon in First Love, tonight, 7pm and tomorrow, 4pm and 7pm.
Cassie Vallance in Teddy Bears’ Picnic, August 22; August 27 to 29; August 31; September 1 to 5, 11.30am and 1.30pm.
Lisa Howard in Every Time A Bell Rings, August 26 to 29; August 31 to September 5, 7pm, plus August 29 and September 5, 4pm.
For tickets, go to parkbenchtheatre.com or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.